Supreme court acquits Danish doctor in landmark case

Supreme court acquits Danish doctor in landmark case
Photo: Sonny Munk Carlsen/Ritzau Scanpix
Denmark’s Højesteret supreme court on Wednesday acquitted a junior doctor in a negligence case that last year sparked a nationwide support campaign by medical colleagues.

The junior doctor, formerly of Svendborg Hospital, had been convicted of negligence by the Østre Landsret high court following the death of a diabetic patient in 2013 – having initially been found not guilty at a district court.

But the supreme court overturned the guilty verdict on Wednesday.

A campaign by doctors, nurses and several other medical professional groups last year called for the the case to be brought to Denmark’s highest legal authority.

In the campaign online and in Danish media, medics expressed their support for the doctor, citing the potential impact of the conviction on daily practice at hospital wards across the country. 

One of the key issues for doctors involved in the support campaign was the legal sentencing of a colleague for what is generally considered daily practice – namely, giving instructions verbally.

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The campaign carried the hashtag #detkuhaværetmig (‘it could have been me’) and also involved a petition, which gathered thousands of signatures.

Activists also demonstrated at the Ministry of Health in Copenhagen in December.

Doctors involved in the campaign told The Local in October 2017 that normalising legal pursuit over verbal communication would mean that medics could be sued every day – hence the ‘it could have been me’ sentiment of the protest.

The Danish Patient Safety Authority has also been criticised by medical profession representatives for its strict line over the issue.

Danish Medical Association (Lægeforeningen, DMA) chairperson Andreas Rudkjøbing called Wednesday’s verdict “a victory for common sense”.

“The acquittal of the junior doctor in the so-called Svendborg case is a victory for common sense and the only correct outcome of this case, which has been deeply sad,” Rudkjøbing said via a press statement.

“First and foremost for the patient and loved ones of course, but also in its principal significance for the medical professional community,” he added.

The DMA chairperson said that the consequences for medics of a guilty verdict in the case would have been significant.

“We work in a reality in which we must take decisions – sometimes quickly and on an incomplete foundation. We have to act and depend upon each other and colleagues from other disciplines,” he said.

In the verdict, four of the seven judges at the Højesteret court voted to acquit the doctor, finding that her actions could not be defined as grossly negligent or careless, Ritzau reports.

A minority of three judges found that she had acted “against basic medical knowledge,” due in part to a failure to implement a plan for treatment of the patient's diabetes.

The supreme court’s verdict provided final “legal clarity” in the case, Rudkjøbing said.

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