Failure by GP to refer victim of robbery for specialist treatment

On 15 July 2016, the District Court handed down judgment in favour of Gulab Khan, a client of Turner Freeman, against his previous general practitioner, Dr Matthew Rathjen. The Court agreed with the case that Dr Rathjen failed to properly assess and diagnose Mr Khan’s injuries when Mr Khan presented to his then GP following an attack on him by an armed robber during the course of his employment as a petrol station attendant.

On the day of the attack, and in an endeavour to defend himself from being stabbed by the assailant, Mr Khan grabbed the 30cm kitchen knife with his left hand and in the process sustained several lacerations to his left hand, including a deep laceration to his middle finger. In the attack, Mr Khan suffered a severance of the crucial tendons in his left middle finger. On both occasions when he consulted Dr Rathjen with complaints, no action was taken by this GP to refer Mr Khan for scans, or to a hand surgeon or even to a hospital emergency department for review and treatment of his injuries. By the time a second GP referred Mr Khan to a hand surgeon, the window of opportunity for achieving the best possible result from surgery had gone and the only surgery available was complex and without a suitable guarantee of success. As a result, Mr Khan suffered a significant loss of function to his middle finger, a chronic pain syndrome and of course, consequent depression and anxiety.

Dr Rathjen alleged that he conducted several comprehensive tests and examinations on Mr Khan’s hand when he consulted with him. This was not reflected at all in his clinical records. In fact, his records were silent about having conducted any examinations on Mr Khan’s hand of any kind. This did not assist Dr Rathjen in his defence. The Court ultimately took the view that Dr Rathjen’s evidence was somewhat unreliable in respect of several matters and preferred the evidence of Mr Khan.

The case was strongly contested by Dr Rathjen and his lawyers however upon Turner Freeman’s advice, Mr Khan fought back every inch of the way. In the end, the Court ordered Dr Rathjen to pay Mr Khan $206,000 by way of compensation for his injuries. The case highlights the importance of proper record keeping by clinicians, the value of consistent evidence and the benefits of taking a case to Court in circumstances where the evidence holds firm.