Bereaved Parents Not Entitled to Compensation


As a solicitor that helps bereaved families get to the truth following the loss of a loved one due to unlawful killings, accidents on the road and at work, I am continuing to fight for justice but find that the Courts and successive Governments are not in tune with today’s society and thinking.  They are caught up in a time warp of outdated laws and attitudes that only apply more misery following the aftermath of losing a close family member such as child, wife, husband, partner, parents brother and sister.  So another judgement has recently been handed down that set the tone of things to come.

Wrongful Death Compensation in UK

Supreme Court’s Ruling Paul & others v Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust & Others

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling has concluded a significant legal debate on the extent of duty of care owed by medical professionals, not to the patients directly under their care, but to the close family members who suffer psychiatric illness as a result of witnessing their loved one’s distressing death due to medical negligence. This judgment, articulated through appeals involving varied circumstances of loss and psychological trauma, ultimately decided that the realm of medical professionals’ responsibilities does not extend to preventing such psychological harm to the patient’s family members.

Brief Facts About the Claim

In these three legal actions, each set of claimants seeks compensation under the negligence law for psychological distress experienced from observing a loved one’s death under harrowing conditions. Each incident of death is attributed to the alleged negligence of the involved medical professionals or health authorities, who are accused of failing to identify and manage a critical health issue.

The case titled “Paul” involves two young daughters who witnessed their father’s abrupt demise on a public road due to such a health crisis. In “Polmear,” the claimants are the bereaved parents who saw the heartrending passing of their young child. The “Purchase” case features a claimant who discovered her daughter under traumatic conditions shortly after she had passed away.

The defendants in each case sought to immediately dismiss the claims for compensation related to psychological harm, contending that even if the presented facts were accepted as true, the claims would legally be unable to proceed.

All lower courts and the Court of Appeal through various legal channels, setting the stage for further judicial examination of the claims following rejection and dismissal of all claims.  The matter was therefore given leave to the Supreme Court to decide finally on the law in this area.

Supreme Court’s Rational to Prevent Bereaved Claimants Making a Claim

Central to this decision is the distinction drawn between accidents and medical events. While the law has carved out exceptions for compensation in cases of psychiatric illness caused by witnessing accidents due to negligence, the Court firmly differentiated these scenarios from those involving the progression or outcome of medical conditions. The Court reasoned that accidents are sudden and identifiable events, whereas the development and manifestation of medical conditions can span a significant period, making the witnessing of these events and their impact on observers highly variable.

This perspective underscores a broader philosophical and legal discourse on the nature of duty, care, and the boundaries of liability. It reflects on how society delineates the scope of protection individuals can expect from professionals and institutions, in this case, highlighting a reluctance to broaden the medical profession’s duty of care to include shielding individuals from the emotional impact of witnessing the consequences of medical failures.

However the Decision Was by a Majority

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion, supported by six justices against one, aligns with a longstanding principle in common law that limits claims for compensation to those directly affected by an action or negligence, barring a few exceptions. This ruling, therefore, maintains a narrow interpretation of duty of care, focused on the direct patient-doctor relationship and excluding secondary victims from claiming compensation for psychiatric injury.

Thanks to One Judge, Lord Burrows

Critics of the decision, including the dissenting Lord Burrows, argue this approach unjustly narrows the possibilities for claims by relatives of patients in cases of medical negligence. They advocate for a broader interpretation that would recognise the traumatic impact on families and offer a pathway for compensation. This perspective sees the event of death due to medical negligence as a critical moment of harm, meriting consideration within the framework of duty of care, even when it doesn’t involve a sudden accident.

The Court’s ruling raises essential questions about the balance between the economic sustainability of public healthcare systems, like the NHS, and the moral imperative to acknowledge and ameliorate the full spectrum of harm caused by medical errors.

While it acknowledges the financial and systemic pressures faced by the NHS, it also draws attention to the limitations placed on justice and compensation for families devastated by medical negligence.

In essence, this judgment reflects the ongoing struggle to define the limits of accountability and support within healthcare, legal, and societal frameworks. It leaves a profound impact on families seeking redress for psychiatric injuries, shaping the future discourse on the responsibilities of healthcare providers beyond the immediate patient care, and how society values and supports individuals affected by the ripple effects of medical negligence.

Further Reading for Bereaved Families

Whilst another legal blow against bereaved families, nevertheless there are still significant help and support that we can provide to assist in the aftermath of losing a loved one.  This will include liaising with the police, the coroner, courts, insurance companies to establish the truth and gain compensation to help support the family that often loses financial and care support.

For further guidance please click on the following:

How to claim for a bereavement award

Who can claim for a bereavement award?

Who is a dependent of the deceased?

What is a Coroner’s court and Inquest?

Contact us for help and support following a bereavement.


Posted: March 9, 2024 at 11:08 am