Superbug payments under spotlight
Updated on 16 April 2009
Millions of pounds were paid out in patient compensation claims involving allegations about hospital superbugs in the past five years, Channel 4 News online has found.
The payout figures, obtained from the NHS under freedom of information (FoI) laws, reveal the number of settlements made to victims when MRSA or C. diff allegations were included as part of their overall claim for compensation for injury.
It is unclear how much to the £12m total relates specifically to injuries caused by MRSA and C. diff, as the claims could have eventually been settled for another reason, most likely clinical negligence or breach of duty.
But the new details shed light on how many claims have featured the two superbugs.
Solicitors and support groups say that overall damages awarded for MRSA and C. diff are too low and infrequent, and warn that infection-related claims are notoriously difficult for victims to prove.
They say that even people who have lost a limb can fail to win their case.
"It is very muddy waters. Proving you have caught MRSA in a hospital and suffered - even the loss of a limb - is not always enough."Tony Field, MRSA Support
According to the figures, obtained from the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA), which defends compensation claims for health authorities, £4,000,462 was paid out to 44 claimants who included MRSA allegations as part of their overall claim in 2005, £1,964,617 to 32 claimants in 2006, £4,964,679 to 63 claimants in 2007, and £1,493,410 to 27 claimants last year.
The claims with allegations including C. diff were much lower, with just one settled for £11,500 in 2005, three claimants getting £18,900 in 2006, £137,803 paid out on five claims in 2007, and £101,000 paid out to nine people last year.
Over the same period 332 claims that involved MRSA were settled without damages by the NHSLA, and 21 for C. diff.
Tony Field, of MRSA Support, said: "The levels of compensation are a drop in the ocean compared to the number of people that have suffered in the past.
"It is very muddy waters. Proving you have caught MRSA in a hospital and suffered - even the loss of a limb - is not always enough."
Anne Reed, a solicitor who represents victims of hospital-acquired infections, agreed that the level of payouts was low, in part due to the nature of the law.
She said: "MRSA or C. diff complaints are very difficult claims to bring. The major problem is in relation to common law, for example identifying where the patient got the infection in the first place; from the nurse, the doctor, or in surgery? It is just a constant battle.
"And then it does not necessarily relate to where the infection was contracted, it's whether you can prove negligence in how the patient was treated thereafter.
"The size of the settlement is dictated, in the main part, to loss of earnings, rather than the actual nature of the injuries suffered."Steve Walker, NHSLA chief executive
"The NHS lawyers defend absolutely everything, so even patients who have suffered significant injuries can be left with nothing."
The NHSLA say that "almost all" the claims detailed in the disclosure were settled out of court, and that the vast majority will have related to clinical negligence and breach of duty settlements.
The figures given to Channel 4 News relate to every claim where MRSA or C. Diff allegations formed part of the complainant's case, even if ultimately it was not the main reason they won the case.
Steve Walker, chief executive of the NHSLA, said: "We haven't settled many claims that are solely related to MRSA and C. diff, these figures come from when they have just been included as part of the claim, when lawyers bundle things together to try and strengthen their cases.
"The size of the settlement is related, in the main part, to loss of earnings, rather than the actual nature of the injuries suffered."