Norwich hospital at centre of MRSA legal test case

Is it right that a person can buy the personal injury damages claim of another person and pursue the claim through the courts?

That is the question that is being considered by some of the top judges in the country after a Norwich damages claim was heard in London's Civil Appeal Court this week.

Judges at the court were told that after Alan Catchpole, 57, of West Acre Drive, Old Catton, Norwich, was struck by the MRSA bug after undergoing surgery at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital in 2005, he decided not to pursue his claim himself.

Instead, he 'assigned' his 'cause of action' to Jenni Simpson, of Kirby Bedon, who paid him �1 to take over his role as 'claimant' in the case.

The court heard how Mrs Simpson, whose late husband John was also diagnosed with MRSA while being treated for cancer at the N&N, wanted to use the other man's case to highlight alleged failures to stamp out the infection.

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However, NHS lawyers say that, if her case succeeds, it will be an invitation to claim farmers and no win-no fee solicitors to buy up potentially vast numbers of claims by alleged negligence victims and pursue them to court with an eye to profit.

Her barrister, Simon Redmayne, said her motive was not financial, but to see the hospital's infection control procedures 'tested in court' and to 'heighten the appreciation within the hospital that it needs to deal with MRSA'.

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He denied there was any principle of law which prevents alleged negligence victims assigning their right to take court action to third parties and, even if there was, it would be 'anachronistic' in light of the Human Rights Act and modern attitudes to access to justice.

Although he now has 'no direct interest' in the case, the court heard Mr Catchpole 'cares about the result' and 'would like an apology' from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust.

Speaking to the EDP, Mr Catchpole said he would have liked to have pursued the claim himself, but he had been unable to obtain insurance to protect himself in the event of having to cover the hospital's costs and he could not risk losing his home.

The grandfather-of-two, who works for Bayer, said: 'I would have loved to take them on, but if I had gone ahead the opposition were building up costs and I could have lost my home and everything. I had no option and I couldn't take it any further.'

Mr Catchpole, who said he was glad Mrs Simpson had taken on his case, said that following his operation at the hospital in 2005, he was discharged, but within a few hours he had been readmitted because he was felling so unwell.

He said: 'It was frightening. This was a few years ago when you heard about people losing their lives and I felt very ill.

'I was on a ward with other people for a week before they said it was MRSA and I was put into isolation. My legs were blowing up and I had to have drugs pumped into me every night.'

The hospital maintains that its staff are 'totally focused on reducing hospital-acquired infection'.

A spokesman said: 'It is an absolute priority for all of us and we have a track record of having low rates of MRSA infection. Last year we had only eight cases of hospital-acquired MRSA infection and we treated 151,751 in-patients and day patients over that period. This year, to date, we have only had seven cases of hospital-acquired MRSA.'

Both Mr Catchpole and Mrs Simpson were in contact with Godfrey Morgan Solicitors in Yarmouth Road, Norwich, and the company helped to put together the unique case.

Mr Redmayne, who is from the Norwich-based East Anglian Chambers, told the Civil Appeal Court there was 'no harm' in Mr Catchpole assigning his claim to Mrs Simpson and, even if that meant solicitors and 'claim farmers' could buy up cases in the future, that was 'likely to assist, rather than obstruct, public justice'.

Litigation, he added, was often 'a bloody business' and there would be real merit in a system which relieved injured people of the risks and anxieties involved in pursuing their cases themselves.

However, Jeremy Morgan QC, for the hospital trust, said it was against 'public policy' for Mrs Simpson to be able to step into Mr Catchpole's shoes and pursue his damages claim herself.

If the arrangement between Mr Catchpole and Mrs Simpson was upheld, there would be nothing to prevent solicitors and claim farmers 'simply buying causes of action from injured people and running the cases for themselves', he told the court.

'There would be a ready market for the sale and purchase of claims,' he added.

Mr Morgan said NHS trusts would also find themselves 'on a hiding to nothing' in trying to defend claims by impecunious claimants – backed by legal aid, or no win-no fee deals – and would be forced to settle cases for more than they are really worth, just to save legal costs.

If arrangements like that between Mr Catchpole and Mrs Simpson became commonplace, Mr Morgan said it would 'enable a person who has no interest in a claim to prosecute it before the courts' and that would be the 'exact opposite' of even-handed access to justice.

After a day of legal argument, Lord Justice Maurice Kay, Lady Justice Smith and Lord Justice Moore-Bick decided to reserve their decision until a later date. A decision is expected in a few weeks.

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