Misleading Headlines – “Coroner Blames Poor Hospital Care for Teacher’s Death after Childbirth”

The tragedy of the maternal death of Frances Capuccini at the Tunbridge Wells Hospital hit the newspaper headlines but only serves to highlight the different thresholds to satisfy the burden of proof in the Criminal, Coronial and Civil Courts.

The inquest was opened in 2014 and adjourned for consideration of criminal charge. The CPS decided to prosecute Dr Nadeem Aziz and Dr Earl Cornish for medical manslaughter and the Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust for corporate manslaughter. Dr Aziz departed to Pakistan. At the trial in January 2016 the CPS failed spectacularly to discharge the burden of proof upon them to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt. The Crown Court Judge in ruling that there was no case to answer directed the jury to acquit. “As regards Dr Cornish this is a case so far removed from a case of gross negligence manslaughter as it is possible to be”. He found the CPS expert’s evidence against the Trust as “perverse and that there was no evidence of any systemic failure of management or organisation of activities”.

In January 2017, the Coroner reached a narrative conclusion, “as a result of my findings I propose to record that the death of Frances Capuccini is as a result of failures and inadequate diagnosis and treatment of her at The Tunbridge Wells Hospitals on October 8 and 9 2012”.

In contrast to the news headlines he did not and is not permitted under the Coroner’s Rules to “blame”. The stark difference in the outcome in the Criminal and Coronial Courts is the different burden of proof required.

Even before the inquest was concluded articles were appearing in legal journals considering whether the evidence was sufficient to prove medical negligence on a balance of probabilities. In fairness to the Hospital Trust they had recognised from the start that there were aspects of Frances Capuccini’s care that fell short of the standards expected. It is very unlikely a civil trial will take place; the only remaining issue is the amount of compensation properly payable to the family which will no doubt be the subject of a confidential settlement agreement between the NHSLA and the family’s lawyers.

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