First case of corporate manslaughter against NHS trust collapses

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 29 January 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i585
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1The BMJ

A landmark manslaughter prosecution against an NHS trust and a consultant anaesthetist has collapsed, after the judge directed the jury on 28 January to return not guilty verdicts part way through the trial.

Mr Justice Coulson agreed with defence barristers that there was no case to answer against Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in Kent and a locum consultant anaesthetist, Errol Cornish, in the first corporate manslaughter case to be brought against an NHS trust.

Cornish, 68, was accused of gross negligence causing the death of Frances Cappuccini, 30, who failed to come round from her anaesthetic and died from a cardiac arrest after a post-caesarean operation to remove residual placental tissue at Tunbridge Wells Hospital in Pembury, Kent, in October 2012. Nadeem Azeez, 52, a specialty doctor in anaesthetics, would have been charged with manslaughter but was thought to have fled to his native Pakistan.1

The prosecution alleged that Azeez, who had primary responsibility for Cappuccini, and Cornish, who was called in later, caused her death by failing to ensure that she remained ventilated after the operation. The trust was said to be criminally liable for appointing doctors it knew or should have known lacked the training, qualifications, and competence for their roles, and for failing to ensure that Azeez was supervised by a consultant.2

Having heard the prosecution evidence, the judge said it showed that some of Cornish’s actions had been “about as far from a gross negligence manslaughter case as it is possible to be,” branding some of the prosecution’s arguments against the trust “perverse.” He said it was understandable that Cappuccini’s family wanted to know why she had died and wanted someone to be held accountable.

“But this is not a public inquiry into her death,” he said. “It is a criminal trial with two defendants facing serious charges. The test for gross negligence manslaughter is very high and cases are rare. A misjudgement has to be so grave that it is a crime.”

He ruled that there was no evidence on which a jury could properly conclude that Cornish had breached a duty of care, or that any such breach was gross, or that any such breach had caused Cappuccini’s death. While there was evidence that the trust had breached a duty of care, he added, there was no evidence on which a jury could properly conclude that the breach was gross or that it had caused the death.


Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i585


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