Chester v Afshar

[2004] UKHL 41


The Appellate Committee comprised:

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

Lord Steyn

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe


Session 2003-04

on appeal from: [2002] EWCA Civ 724





My Lords,


The central question in this appeal is whether the conventional approach to causation in negligence actions should be varied where the claim is based on a doctor's negligent failure to warn a patient of a small but unavoidable risk of surgery when, following surgery performed with due care and skill, such risk eventuates but it is not shown that, if duly warned, the patient would not have undergone surgery with the same small but unavoidable risk of mishap. Is it relevant to the outcome of the claim to decide whether, duly warned, the patient probably would or probably would not have consented to undergo the surgery in question?


I am indebted to my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead for his detailed account of the facts and the history of these proceedings, which I need not repeat.


For some six years beginning in 1988 the claimant, Miss Chester, suffered repeated episodes of low back pain. She was conservatively treated by Dr Wright, a consultant rheumatologist, who administered epidural and sclerosant injections. An MRI scan in 1992 showed evidence of disc protrusions. In 1994, on the eve of a professional trip abroad, Miss Chester suffered another episode of pain and disability: she could "hardly walk", and had reduced control of her bladder. Dr Wright gave another epidural injection, and Miss Chester was able to make the trip, using a wheelchair at Heathrow. But after the trip the pain returned. A further MRI scan revealed marked protrusion of discs into the spinal canal. After further conservative treatment which proved ineffective, Dr Wright referred Miss Chester to Mr Afshar, a distinguished consultant neurosurgeon with much experience of disc surgery, although Miss Chester was understandably reluctant to undergo surgery if this could be avoided.


On accepting Miss Chester as a patient, Mr Afshar became subject to a legal as well as a professional duty to exercise reasonable care and skill in examining her; in assessing her case; and in advising on the need for surgery to alleviate her condition. If surgery was advised and accepted, he was bound to exercise reasonable care and skill in operating and in supervising her post-operatively. Mr Afshar did examine Miss Chester, did advise and did undertake surgery. All these duties Mr Afshar duly performed. Miss Chester contended at trial that Mr Afshar had performed the operation negligently, but the judge rejected this complaint and in the event the Court of Appeal was not asked to rule on that question.


Mr Afshar was however subject to a further, important, duty: to warn Miss Chester of a small (1%-2%) but unavoidable risk that the proposed operation, however expertly performed, might lead to a seriously adverse result, known in medical parlance as cauda equina syndrome. The existence of such a duty is not in doubt. Nor is its rationale: to enable adult patients of sound mind to make for themselves decisions intimately affecting their own lives and bodies. There was a conflict of evidence at trial on what was said by Mr Afshar about the risk of an adverse outcome, but the judge resolved this conflict against him, holding that he had not given the warning which he should have given, and the Court of Appeal did not give him leave to challenge that conclusion. So it must be accepted that Mr Afshar did not give Miss Chester the warning which he should have given of the small but unavoidable risk that surgery might not improve Miss Chester's condition but might affect it adversely. As it was, the surgery, although skilfully performed, led to her suffering the cauda equina syndrome.


Had the evidence entitled the judge to conclude, and had he concluded, that Miss Chester, if warned as she should have been, would probably not have agreed to surgery, she would on conventional principles have been entitled to recover damages. The measure of damages would have reflected the difference between Miss Chester's condition following surgery and the condition she would probably have been in without surgery, but there would have been no problem of causation. Had the warning been given, Miss Chester would (on such a finding) have acted differently, and her additional injury would be directly attributable to the absence of warning. The same would be true if the evidence had entitled the judge to conclude, and if he had concluded, that Miss Chester, if properly warned as she should have been, could and would have minimised the risk of surgery by entrusting herself to a different surgeon, or undergoing a different form of surgery, or (in another kind of case) losing weight or giving up smoking.


But the judge made none of these findings. He concluded that, if duly warned, Miss Chester would not have undergone surgery three days after her first consultation with Mr Afshar, but would, very understandably, have wished to discuss the matter with others and explore other options. But he did not find (and was not invited to find) that she would probably not have undergone the surgery or that there was any way of minimising the small degree of risk inherent in surgery. As my noble and learned friend Lord Hope observes in paragraph 61 of his opinion, the risk

"was also liable to occur at random, irrespective of the degree of care and skill with which the operation was conducted by the surgeon. This means that the risk would have been the same whenever and at whoever's hands she had the operation … it is difficult to say that his failure was the effective cause of the injury."


It is now, I think, generally accepted that the "but for" test does not provide a comprehensive or exclusive test of causation in the law of tort. Sometimes, if rarely, it yields too restrictive an answer, as in Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd [2002] UKHL 22, [2003] 1 AC 32. More often, applied simply and mechanically, it gives too expansive an answer: "But for your negligent misdelivery of my luggage, I should not have had to defer my passage to New York and embark on SS Titanic". But, in the ordinary run of cases, satisfying the "but for" test is a necessary if not a sufficient condition of establishing causation. Here, in my opinion, it is not satisfied. Miss Chester has not established that but for the failure to warn she would not have undergone surgery. She has shown that but for the failure to warn she would not have consented to surgery on Monday 21 November 1994. But the timing of the operation is irrelevant to the injury she suffered, for which she claims to be compensated. That injury would have been as liable to occur whenever the surgery was performed and whoever performed it.


Thus the question arises whether Miss Chester should be entitled to recover even though she cannot show that the negligence proved against Mr Afshar was, in any ordinary sense, a cause of her loss. I am of course impressed by the weight and distinction of the academic opinion supporting the decisions of the judge and the Court of Appeal in this case. But if failure to warn and the occurrence of injury which should have been the subject of the warning are, without more, enough to found a successful claim, the claimant would presumably succeed even in a case like Smith v Barking, Havering and Brentwood Health Authority [1994] 5 Med LR 285, where it is found on the balance of probabilities that the claimant would have consented to the operation even if properly advised. That seems to me, with respect to those who hold otherwise, to be a substantial and unjustified departure from sound and established principle. It is trite law that damage is the gist of the action in the tort of negligence. It is not suggested that it makes any difference whether a claim such as the present is framed in tort or in contract. A claimant is entitled to be compensated for the damage which the negligence of another has caused to him or her. A defendant is bound to compensate the claimant for the damage which his or her negligence has caused the claimant. But the corollaries are also true: a claimant is not entitled to be compensated, and a defendant is not bound to compensate the claimant, for damage not caused by the negligence complained of. The patient's right to be appropriately warned is an important right, which few doctors in the current legal and social climate would consciously or deliberately violate. I do not for my part think that the law should seek to reinforce that right by providing for the payment of potentially very large damages by a defendant whose violation of that right is not shown to have worsened the physical condition of the claimant. I would respectfully adopt the reasoning of McHugh J in his dissenting judgment in Chappel v Hart (1998) 195 CLR 232.


For these reasons, and also those given by my noble and learned friend Lord Hoffmann, I would allow this appeal.


My Lords,


The facts of this case can be simplified. The claimant suffered from low back pain. A neurosurgeon advised her to undergo an elective lumbar surgical procedure. The procedure entails a 1%-2% chance of serious neurological damage arising from the operation. The claimant was entitled to be informed of this fact. In breach of the common law duty of care the surgeon failed to inform the claimant of the risk. The claimant reluctantly agreed to the operation. Three days after her consultation with the surgeon the claimant underwent the surgery. The claimant sustained serious neurological damage. In the result the very injury about which she should have been warned occurred. The surgeon had not been negligent in...

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