The legacy of disgraced surgeon Dr Jayant Patel continues to loom over Queensland, with his conviction in June for manslaughter now triggering a call for more compensation for his hundreds of victims.
Within days of Patel’s conviction on multiple manslaughter and grievous bodily harm charges, and his sentence to seven years’ imprisonment, there was talk of a class action suit against Queensland Health, the Medical Board of Queensland and Dr Patel.
Patel operated on his victims when he was director of surgery at Bundaberg Base Hospital between 2003 and 2005. In the subsequent scandal when the scale and enormity of his botched surgery was revealed, the Queensland State Government launched a special compensation process “to provide fair and reasonable compensation” to his patients.
Hundreds of patients received compensation, buoyed by a public inquiry that found Queensland Health and the Medical Board of Queensland had failed to scrutinise Patel's credentials before he took up work in the state and failed to detect he had been banned from performing some surgery in the United States because of negligence.
In June 2007 the then Attorney-General, Kerry Shine, acknowledged about 380 claims had been lodged under the special scheme. However, many claims were rejected, being considered to be not eligible for compensation, because they were regarded as being either not Patel’s patients or they didn’t suffer adverse outcomes from his treatment.
The Attorney-General also said he was committed “To accept claims from former Patel patients who develop medical problems in the future as a result of Patel procedures”.
While Patel’s lawyers have now launched an appeal against his convictions and sentence, Bundaberg MP, Rob Messenger, has been advocating a new look at the compensation issue. A meeting to gauge interest in a potential class action was held earlier this month with Mr Messenger reportedly claiming 89 people were denied compensation, while a legal source suggested some of Patel’s victims and their families had not been properly treated by the government.
Gregg Williams, a non-practising barrister who helps people with grievances about their treatment by the government, is among the lawyers who have reportedly offered to help the victims. Mr Williams, a former Queensland government employee, says several lawyers have volunteered to help victims of Dr Patel on an informal basis.
One sensitive aspect to the Patel compensation process has been the secrecy imposed upon the deals. Details about the total amount of compensation paid and the number of people who received it are confidential because two cases remain before the courts, a Queensland Health spokeswoman told a media inquirer.
Against a volatile backdrop of emotions, politics, secrecy and money we need to take an urgent reality check.
The reality for those victims already compensated through the special State Government process is that they are unlikely to benefit from any planned class civil compensation action. Talk of suing Patel, Queensland Health or the state’s Medical Board seems to be more rooted in political campaigning than any realistic hope of extracting further compensation.
Beryl Crosby, a Bundaberg Hospital Patients Support Group spokesperson who was active in negotiating the original settlements, told media she believed new legal action was out of the question. She reportedly said Mr Messenger was giving patients "false hope" that they could pursue class action. Participants would then have to repay the government compensation, she warned, saying patients had been happy with their payments and were being led on by claims they were entitled to more.
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