The constitutional right to emergency medical treatment

Last year, the Constitutional Court (CC) highlighted the importance of the constitutional right to emergency medical treatment. The case involved a 17 year old boy who had experienced serious spinal cord injuries whilst playing rugby. The hospital that first assessed the boy did not have the facilities to treat him and so he was eventually transferred to a larger hospital after waiting a long time for an ambulance. Although the larger hospital had the equipment necessary to treat him, the decision was made to transfer the boy to another hospital that specialised in spinal cord injuries. He was finally admitted for his procedure fourteen hours after sustaining the injuries. Unfortunately, due to lack of blood supply, the boy suffered paralysis from the neck downwards which resulted in permanent quadriplegia.

An application was then brought to the Cape Town High Court which ruled that the Western Cape Department of Health was liable for the damage caused by the injuries sustained as a result of the failure to provide the necessary emergency treatment.

This decision was reversed by the Supreme Court of Appeal before it eventually made its way on appeal to the CC. A medical expert suggested that if the boy had received reasonable medical attention within four hours, there was a 64% chance of making a full or substantial recovery from harm of permanent quadriplegia. The CC emphasized that the law requires hospitals to provide urgent and appropriate medical emergency medical treatment to a person in the position of the applicant. The Western Cape Department of Health had failed to provide a reasonable explanation for the delays in performing a simple and inexpensive procedure that was both available and necessary. The CC therefore decided that the Western Cape Department of Health had breached its legal duty to provide the applicant with urgent medical treatment and had acted unlawfully.

Read the judgment here: http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2015/33.pdf

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