Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Medical Error

Where should the buck stop? Doctors, medical errors, and the justice system

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 23 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6274
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent, The BMJ
  1. claredyer4{at}

Editorial, doi:10.1136/bmj.i6268

After the Court of Appeal overturned surgeon David Sellu’s conviction for manslaughter, Clare Dyer reports on fears that doctors are being unjustly criminalised

When David Sellu, a respected senior surgeon with an unblemished 40 year career in the NHS, was taken away in handcuffs to Belmarsh Prison the medical community was stunned.1 It was November 2013 and an Old Bailey jury, by a 10-2 majority, had convicted Sellu of the manslaughter of a patient by gross negligence.2

The QC who defended Sellu at his trial told him there were no grounds for an appeal. “My barrister said there was nothing to be gained by appealing because he’d explored all there was to explore,” Sellu remembers. So the 28 day time limit for appealing lapsed.

In February 2010 Sellu, a consultant colorectal surgeon with Ealing Hospital NHS Trust, had been called in to the private Clementine Churchill Hospital when James Hughes, a 66 year old builder, developed abdominal pains days after a successful knee replacement by an orthopaedic surgeon. Sellu performed an operation 25 hours after he first saw Hughes, but the patient died from a perforated bowel.

A six and a half year journey, which Sellu describes as “very long and bruising,” has taken the Sierra Leone born surgeon through a coroner’s inquest, hospital investigation, police inquiry, prosecution, conviction, 15 months in prison, and, eventually, to the Appeal Court, where three senior judges quashed his conviction on 15 November.

The Appeal Court judgment reveals failures throughout the system, including problems in obtaining the services of …

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