$11k for failed negligence case

A PAINFUL TOLL: Judy and Tony McKeown faced legal costs for taking action after their son, Anthony McKeown, killed himself while in hospital care.
A PAINFUL TOLL: Judy and Tony McKeown faced legal costs for taking action after their son, Anthony McKeown, killed himself while in hospital care.

Judy McKeown promised herself she was not going to cry.

But six years on, the emotion of losing her son is still raw.

Anthony McKeown, 36, was found unconscious in the Hillmorton Hospital secure unit in January 2004 and died soon after.

Despite a police investigation, a Health and Disability Commission (HDC) investigation and a coroner's inquest, the McKeowns feel no-one has been held accountable for their son's death while he was supposed to be kept safe within a psychiatric hospital.

"The death of a child is the most horrendous thing, but when you know that the people that should have been caring for him and keeping him safe are responsible for that, how do you live with it?" Judy McKeown said.

The Christchurch couple heard last week that they are liable to pay costs of more than $11,000 to the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) after a civil case they took against it in January was dismissed.

The basis of the case was that the board breached their son's human rights and its negligence caused mental injury to his parents.

Both claims were struck out by the High Court because they should have been brought within two years, and costs were awarded to the board.

"The idea of paying them money makes me absolutely sick to my stomach," Judy McKeown said at her Richmond home.

"It's like we are colluding in the death of my son. I feel so angry.

"Our lives since all of this unfolded ... it's destroyed us. We have lost everything," she said, trying to control her tears.

Her husband, Tony McKeown, became deeply depressed after his son's death and had to sell his business, leaving the couple with a mortgage to pay and little income.

Judy McKeown said they now lived off a pension and their lawyers, GCA Lawyers, worked on their case for a significantly reduced charge.

"It's so hard, but we cannot give up."

She said the family did not know whether it wanted to take a civil case until all the relevant investigations had been completed.

A police investigation took nearly four years, a HDC investigation one year and the coroner's report into the death was not released until July this year.

Judy McKeown said if the family had been happy with the coroner's report, they would not have tried to sue the health board.

Coroner Richard McElrea found no-one was responsible for her son's death.

"His death in this setting was the result of his illness at the time of admission, and risk assessment and handover procedures that were not then as robust as they now are following, and a result of, his death," his report said.

For Judy McKeown, the civil case was about accountability. "For them to come out and say, 'Yep, we were wrong, we were negligent, we labelled your son with a diagnosis [factitious disorder] which kept him out of the health system, stopped him from being able to get any help."

The HDC report found that doctors failed to adequately care for Anthony McKeown because some believed he was faking his psychiatric problems.

On the day he died, Hillmorton staff left him unchecked for up to 45 minutes, when he should have been checked every 15 minutes.

The CDHB "did not have appropriately functioning resuscitation equipment to hand ... or staff adequately trained in emergency response," the report said.

Judy McKeown said the board had limitless resources to defend the case with taxpayer money.

In contrast, the family would need $20,000 to appeal against the decision and could face further costs after that.

"I might sell my car, but it's still not enough money. I just don't know what to do," she said.

"How can it be the end of the road for us? There's never been any closure."

CDHB chief executive David Meates said yesterday that the board was sorry for the McKeowns' loss.

"When a patient takes their own life in our care it is something that we take very seriously," he said.

"The mental health service has worked hard over recent years to learn from tragedies such as that which occurred to Mr McKeown and his family.

"Processes have since changed. There are now much better handover procedures and improved communication with families.

"Clinical staff work hard to identify potential risks and reduce them from occurring."

Meates said that while the court had awarded costs, that did not necessarily mean the board would pursue them.

"We are currently in discussions with the family's solicitors," he said.

McKeown said her lawyer was contacted by the board's lawyer yesterday after The Press made inquiries about the case.

Her lawyer was told the board did not want to bankrupt the family, who could make an offer.

She said she would "not pay a cent" to the board.

The Press