Hunter and New England Local Health District v McKenna
On 12 November 2014 the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in Hunter and New England Local Health District v McKenna.
The Hunter and New England Local Health District is responsible for the conduct of the Manning Base Hospital at Taree.
In 2004, Phillip Pettigrove, (a man with a long history of schizophrenia), was involuntarily admitted to, and detained in, the Hospital. Mr Pettigrove had at the time been with his friend in New South Wales, Stephen Rose. After a doctor at the hospital reviewed Mr Pettigrove's medical history, and spoke to Mr Pettigrove, Mr Rose and Mr Pettigrove's mother, it was agreed that Mr Pettigrove would be kept in the hospital overnight. The following day, Mr Rose was to drive Mr Pettigrove back to his mother's home in Victoria where he would receive ongoing treatment.
During the drive to Victoria, Mr Pettigrove killed Mr Rose.
Relatives of Mr Rose brought court proceedings damages for the psychiatric injuries they allegedly developed as a result of Mr Rose's death. The relatives alleged that the hospital and the doctor did not exercise reasonable professional care and skill in deciding to discharge Mr Pettigrove into the care of Mr Rose for the journey to Victoria.
The first judge found that there had been no breach of duty of care. That decision was overturned by the NSW Court of Appeal. The health authority appealed to the High Court.
The High Court unanimously allowed the appeal. It found that the hospital and doctor did not owe a duty of care to Mr Rose's relatives. The Mental Health Act prohibited the detention, or the continuation of detention, of a mentally ill person unless the medical superintendent of the hospital formed the opinion that no other less restrictive care was appropriate and reasonably available. The High Court found that performance of that statutory obligation would not be consistent with the common law duty of care alleged by the relatives of Mr Rose. Ultimately, Mr Rose's family members lost their claim for damages.
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