Dobbie v Medway Health Authority: CA 11 May 1994

The plaintiff had a lump on her breast. The surgeon, without first subjecting the lump to a microscopic examination in order to determine whether it was cancerous or benign, removed the breast. This was in 1973. The lump was subsequently found to be benign. The patient knew very soon after the operation that the lump was benign but did not know until 1988 that that meant her breast need not have been removed. She began proceedings for negligence in 1989.
Held: Time began to run from the date of knowledge of the cause of an injury, not the date when the claimant knew that the cause was tortious. Sir Thomas Bingham MR considered the test of knowledge: ‘This test is not in my judgment hard to apply. It involves ascertaining the personal injury on which the claim is founded and asking when the claimant knew of it. In the case of an insidious disease or a delayed result of a surgical mishap, this knowledge may come well after the suffering of the disease or the performance of the surgery. But more usually the claimant knows that he has suffered personal injury as soon or almost as soon as he does so’. ‘The word ‘attributable’ in section 14(1) (b) does not mean ’caused by’. It merely means ‘capable of being attributed”.
Sir Thomas Bingham MR said: ‘The personal injury on which the plaintiff seeks to found her claim is the removal of her breast and the psychological and physical harm which followed. She knew of this injury within hours, days or months of the operation and she at all times reasonably considered it to be significant. She knew from the beginning that this injury was capable of being attributed to, or more bluntly was the clear and direct result of, an act or omission of the health authority. What she did not appreciate until later was that the health authority’s act or omission was (arguably) negligent or blameworthy. But her want of that knowledge did not stop time beginning to run.’
As to the meaning of ‘significant injury’: ‘The requirement that the injury of which a plaintiff has knowledge should be ‘significant’ is in my view directed solely to the quantum of the injury and not to the plaintiff’s evaluation of its cause, nature or usualness. Time does not run against a plaintiff, even if he is aware of the injury, if he would reasonably have considered it insufficiently serious to justify proceedings against an acquiescent and credit-worthy defendant, if (in other words) he would reasonably have accepted it as a fact of life or not worth bothering about. It is otherwise if the injury is reasonably to be considered as sufficiently serious within the statutory definition: time then runs (subject to the requirement of attributability) even if the plaintiff believes the injury to be normal or properly caused.’
Sir Thomas Bingham MR, Steyn LJ
Ind Summary 06-Jun-1994, Times 18-May-1994, [1994] 1 WLR 1234, 1994 5 MEDLR 160, [1994] EWCA Civ 13, [1994] 4 All ER 450, [1994] PIQR 353
Limitation Act 1980 11(4)(b) 14(1)(b)
England and Wales
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These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 09 April 2021; Ref: scu.80075