Family wins compo fight for meningitis boy

Last updated 05:00 25/11/2009

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The family of a boy who lost a foot and most of his right hand after a doctor failed to diagnose meningococcal disease has won a five-year legal battle for compensation.

Phoenix Hunt was 2 1/2 years old when he contracted the potentially deadly disease in 2003 – the height of the meningococcal epidemic in South Auckland.

His father, Gavin Hunt, said a decision issued yesterday at Auckland District Court recognising medical error was involved had given the family "some closure".

Speaking through his lawyer, Sonia Thistoll, Mr Hunt said he was "relieved Phoenix will be able to apply for ACC entitlements and it demonstrates it is important for doctors to listen".

It was February 2003 when Phoenix fell ill, becoming feverish, drowsy and vomiting.

His mother, Sara Munro, immediately suspected meningococcal disease, having recently seen her friend's child get sick.

However, Dr William Kim, who examined Phoenix at the Counties Care Accident and Medical Centre in Papakura, assured the worried mother her child did not have meningococcal disease. He diagnosed a probable tummy bug.

Ms Munro took Phoenix home and put him to bed about 12.30pm. He woke up screaming three hours later, with a rash on his stomach.

Having been told by the doctor that it was not meningococcal disease, Ms Munro consulted a medical book for other explanations. She called Phoenix's father but not the doctor.

She later described that afternoon as "a scary blur".

When Mr Hunt got home after 6pm, they took Phoenix to Middlemore Hospital. Tests showed he had meningococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning). His condition deteriorated and he was transferred to Starship hospital.

His kidneys failed and surgeons were forced to amputate his right foot and ankle, and the thumb and two fingers on his right hand, to save his life.

ACC accepted his parents' claim for medical misadventure in 2004 on the basis of independent advice from paediatrician Vaughan Richardson, who found Dr Kim had "failed to provide a reasonable standard of care" and earlier treatment would probably have spared Phoenix the amputations.

When Dr Kim challenged the decision, the reviewer quashed it and declined cover.

Phoenix's father then lodged an appeal with the district court.

In a decision issued yesterday, Judge Martin Beattie overturned the tribunal's decision, concluding that Dr Kim had failed to tell Ms Munro what to do if a rash appeared. The judge said that error led to the delay in treatment.

Dr Kim was ordered to pay $3000 in costs. The family can apply to ACC for backdated care payments, and Phoenix can apply for funding for any rehabilitation or treatment in future and for lump sum compensation.

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Legal experts said Phoenix could expect to get about $10,000 for the loss of his foot.

Dr Kim told The Dominion Post he was disappointed with the decision – especially as the health and disability commission had cleared him of making any error.

"But ... it's good in the sense that Phoenix will get the help he needs."

Dr Kim said the experience had changed his practice – he now made "very sure" that parents fully understood his advice.

- The Dominion Post

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