Case law updates

“Major issues” with hospital’s investigation led to surgeon’s unfair dismissal

A surgeon who accidentally set a patient on fire during an operation was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has ruled, finding “major issues” with the investigation.

Dr O Iwuchukwu worked as a consultant general surgeon with a special interest in breast surgery at City Hospitals Sunderland from 2006 until his dismissal in 2015. In August 2013, Iwuchukwu was operating on a patient when he was mistakenly handed an alcohol-based antiseptic solution, instead of a non-flammable aqueous solution, which he applied to the patient. He then used a diathermy pen – which targets electrically induced heat to stop wounds from bleeding – which ignited the alcohol preparation, causing the patient to suffer a major burn.

An investigation report concluded on that “system failures” were the root cause of the accident and that while human error was a “contributory factor”, the  processes and practices should have been effective in preventing the incident from taking place. However several complaints about the surgeon’s capability were raised and this  culminated in Iwuchuku’s employment being terminated.

Whilst the Tribunal was impressed by the attempt at ensuring a fair hearing, it had major issues with how it was conducted, including how the investigation into the initial incident threw into doubt the claimant’s probity by including other complaints made against him by colleagues over the years. It commented that “matters that were either unproven or actually disproved but included in the material sent to the panel created the real risk they would form a preconception the claimant was a liar and/or an arrogant man who dominated his subordinates.”

The Tribunal therefore ruled that the dismissal had been unfair because of procedural failings, and also that Iwuchukwu had faced race discrimination and victimisation during his time at the hospital.

The overall award of £67,722 was made up of £29,986 for unfair dismissal, and £37,736 for discrimination and victimisation. A 50 per cent reduction was however made to the basic award because the claimant was “equally responsible for the panel being inundated with information they did not need and which touched on matters that were potentially prejudicial”.