Criminal charges to be laid over Sydney baby deaths

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Baby hospital

Five people and two companies will face criminal charges over the deaths of two babies who were given nitrous oxide instead of oxygen at Bankstown-Lidcombe hospital.

Safe Work NSW intends to criminally prosecute South West Local Health District, as well gas installer Christopher Turner and his employer, medical supply company BOC, which supplied the gas to the hospital.

Catastrophic mistakes

Amelia Khan was just days old when she was given nitrous oxide – commonly known as “laughing gas” or “happy gas” – when it was incorrectly connected to the oxygen outlet in the resuscitation unit of one of the hospital’s operating theatres. The gas is toxic for babies. Amelia suffered extensive brain damage as a result and is being fed through a tube.

Just weeks later, baby John Ghanem was also given nitrous oxide instead of oxygen, and died as a result.

At the time, the hospital general manager and the engineer involved in commissioning the gas line were both suspended from their roles pending investigations.

The pipes were originally installed because a gas cylinder was running out of oxygen as staff attempted to resuscitate a baby in January 2014.

‘Series of errors’

A reported conducted in 2016 by the Chief Health Officer found that a series of errors led to the babies being given the wrong gas.

It identified failings in the installation of the piping, mislabelling, and improper post installation procedures- including that the requirement of an anaesthetist being present when the lines were checked was ignored.

Following the catastrophe, an extensive audit of all medical gas outlets installed in NSW Health facilities was conducted.

Complex issues surround the errors

An inspection by police, hospital staff and BOC found that both the medical oxygen and medical nitrous oxide pipelines were incorrectly labelled prior to BOC’s work being undertaken at the hospital in July 2015.

The original installation was not conducted by BOC. However, a document relating to BOC’s work at the hospital found that both a hospital representative and a BOC contractor were involved in commissioning a single oxygen outlet where the fault was found.

During last year’s Supreme Court proceedings between the hospital and BOC, the latter’s contractor Mr Turner denied installing nitrous oxide rather than oxygen to the outlet. The hospital took proceedings against both BOC and Turner, which are still on foot.

Khan family sues for negligence

Amelia Khan’s family is also separately suing the hospital for medical negligence.

The nature of young Amelia’s brain damage has left her with an uncertain future, and her family is hoping to receive compensation to ensure their daughter’s future needs are taken care of.

Under the law, negligence includes a failure to take reasonable care to avoid causing a reasonably foreseeable injury or loss to another person.

There are specific steps in proving negligence, including establishing that:

  • The defendant owes a ‘duty of care’ to the plaintiff,
  • The defendant’s conduct or inaction did not meet the standard of care of a reasonable person would in the circumstances,
  • Foreseeable injury or loss suffered occurred as a result.

Unless a settlement is reached, the case will also be decided by the Supreme Court of NSW.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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