After nearly two years of evidence, about 20 witnesses and a mountain of legal fees, the coronial inquest into the deaths of patients caught up in SA Health’s chemotherapy bungle was meant to come to an end this week.
Surviving victims and the families of Christopher McRae, 67, Anne Pinxteren, 76, Bronte Ormond Higham, 68, and Carol Bairnsfather, 70, who died after they were underdosed during their chemotherapy treatment were hopeful of receiving some closure.
Instead, they had to endure hours of complex legal argument as doctors’ lawyers make an eleventh-hour pitch to have the inquest shut down.
Representing the doctors, Darrell Trimm QC argued deputy state coroner Anthony Schapel did not have the jurisdiction to make any findings because Mr McRae and Ms Pinxteren did not meet the definition of reportable deaths under the Coroner’s Act.
He said the subsequent deaths of Mr Higham and Ms Bairnsfather, which were later added to the inquest, were only reported to the coroner because the inquest was already underway.
“The inquest has not be properly constituted from the beginning,” Mr Trimm said.
“Your Honour has joined the subsequent two deaths to an inquest that from its inception was not within your power.”
Mr Trimm argued that there should have been a hearing to determine whether an inquest should be held.
Andrew Knox, who nearly died after he relapsed following the underdose, described the legal challenge mounted by the doctors as “heartless”.
“We won’t be crushed by heartless legal tactics,” he said.
“They may think it’s a clever legal ploy but it comes at the expense of public confidence in the medical profession as a whole and them in particular.”
Mr Knox said he believed the challenge was deliberately launched at the last minute as a tactic.
“It’s not something I don’t expect from lawyers, but it’s not something that we as normal people in the public would expect from human beings,” he said.
“There’s no dignity, there’s not an ounce of compassion or empathy, we are just items in a legal fight to try to make people avoid accountability.”
Mr Trimm argued the deaths were not reportable in light of expert evidence which found the dosage of the chemotherapy drug Cytarabine they received would not have impacted their chance of survival.
Mr Knox said if that was the case, it raised questions over why doctors were treating them with the drug at all.
“If they were treating us with something that was not going to be any good to us, they should have told us in the first place and we wouldn’t have suffered and the last days of those who died would have been better,” he said.
Despite the legal challenge being flagged a week ago, counsel representing the Crown said she did not know how the State Government would respond.
Mr Schapel said he would have to wait to hear submissions from the Crown before making a decision.
“[In] the best scenario, we are not going to see a result for many, many months and it just prolongs the pain,” Mr Knox said.
“If the submissions are accepted, even in part, it means that we won’t get to the whole bottom of the behaviour and it will not stop.”
Mr Knox said if the inquest is not finalised there will need to be a royal commission or an overarching judicial inquiry.
“Accountability has to be found somewhere,” he said.