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Death from sepsis – what compensation can families claim?

Posted: 16/05/2024

Sadly, sometimes, sepsis patients pass away because of failings in their care. Their loved ones may wish to investigate making a clinical negligence claim. This article touches on what compensation can be sought in such cases.

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a rare complication that starts with infection in any part of the body. It is treatable, but potentially very serious as it can spread to the internal organs quickly and cause death if left unaddressed.

Death from sepsis can be unavoidable but, in some cases, it may have been caused by failings in the patient’s medical care. For example, it may be that doctors did not provide adequate or appropriate treatment. They may not have recognised that the patient was suffering from sepsis, or perhaps waited too long to start treatment, by which time it was too late. As sepsis spreads so rapidly, it is important that doctors recognise and manage it promptly.

To make a successful clinical negligence claim, it must be demonstrated that the treatment provided to the patient fell below a reasonable standard, and that, were it not for that failing or failings, they would probably have survived. For example, there are sometimes cases where, unfortunately, the wrong antibiotics were provided, or where antibiotics were provided too late, and this has caused the patient’s death.

What can be claimed?

A clinical negligence claim aims to compensate the claimant for their losses. This can only be done financially, as nothing can undo the damage that has occurred. Costs that would have been incurred anyway cannot be recovered, only those that resulted from the alleged failings in the patient’s care.

Set out below are examples of what may be claimed, if successful. Each case will be different depending on its own specific facts.

General damages
The representatives of the deceased person’s estate can claim ‘general damages’, for their pain, suffering and loss of amenity before the relative’s death. The courts provide guidelines that set out how much can be claimed for different types of injuries. General damages depend on the exact nature and duration of the injury to the person who has passed away. In sepsis cases, often the person passed away quite quickly after falling ill, so general damages may be quite low.

Bereavement damages
Bereavement damages are similar to general damages in that they try to place a financial value on aspects of the claim that cannot truly be calculated or measured. They are currently set at £15,120 (but may be less if the person passed away a long time ago). This sum does seem very low, and entirely arbitrary, and does not at all represent the loss of a loved one. 
Bereavement damages are only awarded to spouses/civil partners, parents of an unmarried minor child and (recently) cohabitees.

Loss of financial dependency
You may be able to make a claim for loss of dependency on the deceased’s earnings or pension. The sums involved will depend on what the deceased person earned before they passed away, what they may have been likely to earn in the future, and the overall household income. Claims for high earners will of course be greater than for someone who did not earn much.

How long the person would have lived if their care had been different is also considered. Life expectancy is a sensitive topic to discuss, and often we cannot be certain what someone’s life expectancy may have been. However, this does need to be assessed so that it is known for how long any annual losses can be claimed.

Loss of services dependency 
There can also be a claim for the loss of services that the late person would have provided, such as helping round the house, DIY or childcare. Again, this will depend on what tasks the person used to perform, how often, and how long they would likely have continued, if their medical care had been different.

In certain circumstances, a wider range of people may be able to bring dependency claims.

Other damages
Other expenses relating to the late person’s passing, such as funeral expenses, may also be claimed. Sometimes there may be losses relating to their care before they passed away, such as aids or equipment that had to be purchased.

Victoria Johnson, associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches Cooper, says: “It can be very hard for families to consider the loss of their loved one in these financial terms. Compensation for someone’s death sadly does not, and cannot, reflect the value of their life. Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of a family member.

“We are limited by the law as to what we can claim, and the sums will always vary depending on the individual facts. Where families have been reliant on someone’s earnings, it is important that they are able to recover compensation for that as otherwise they may be left in real financial hardship, but of course this cannot truly make up for what they have lost.”

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP