In 2004 a man from Victoria, Mr Pettigrove, who had a long history of chronic paraoid schizophrenia was involuntarily admitted to the Manning Base Hospital in Taree.
At that time he had been with a friend of his, Mr Rose. Both Mr Rose and Mr Pettigrove’s mother spoke with hospital staff where it was agreed that Mr Pettigrove would be kept overnight and that the next day Mr Rose would drive Mr Pettigrove back to his mother’s house where he would get some more treatment.
In the course of that journey home Mr Pettigrove killed Mr Rose. He told police he had acted on impulse, believing Mr Rose had killed him in a past life. Mr Pettigrove later took his own life.
Mr Rose’s sisters and mother brought a compensation claim against the hospital (the health authority) for the psychiatric injuries they had suffered as a result of Mr Rose’s death.
They alleged the hospital should not have allowed Mr Pettigrove to be released from the hospital, or at least not simply to the care of Mr Rose alone.
The High Court considered the competing factors of the potential duty to prevent a risk of harm to others against the other statutory duty the hospital staff were confronted with: the duties under the Metal Health Act. That legislation required hospital staff to act with the minimum of interference to mentally ill people and to release them from detention unless no other care of a less restrictive kind was appropriate or available.
Because those statutory duties existed the High Court found that that the hospital did not owe the relatives a duty of care. The relatives lost their case.
The case highlights teh careful attention one needs to take when considering any potential wrongdoing by a hospital measured against the various duties medical authorities are faced with.
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For more details read the full version of the court judgment: