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Christmas gets better for GP cleared in £1m negligence case

By Emily Wright

Christmas Eve will mark an anniversary Dr Sarah Neill would rather forget.

On the night before Christmas two years ago, her senior partner rang to let her know she had received a court summons.

A patient claimed Dr Neill had failed to spot and treat a serious hereditary condition and was seeking more than £1 million in damages.

The case would overshadow Dr Neill's life until earlier this month when the High Court exonerated her and ordered the patient to pay £40,000 costs.

Dr Neill's ordeal began in 2000 when Eugenia Matthews, 58, wrote to the practice manager at her surgery in Shenfield, Essex, complaining that Dr Neill had failed to diagnose that she had Addisonian pernicious anaemia (APA).

Mrs Matthews claimed that, as a result, she was suffering from disabling symptoms that could have been prevented.

Dr Neill said: 'It was so ridiculous. I checked her B12 levels twice and they were on the high side of normal both times.'

The practice set up two meetings with Mrs Matthews to try to resolve the situation, but was eventually forced to suggest she find a new GP.

'Our relationship had completely broken down by then.' Dr Neill said. 'But I truly thought that was the end of it. Then, two years later, I got the summons ­ and on Christmas Eve can you believe?'

'I was away in Ireland with family and I was shocked it could have gone that far. It was just totally unbelievable.'

The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland contacted lawyers on Dr Neill's behalf. But she heard nothing until October 2004. Then they told Dr Neill that despite 'overwhelming' evidence in her favour, Mrs Matthews was pressing ahead.

Despite knowing she had a strong case, the legal battle took its toll.

Dr Neill said she started practising more defensively and became more litigation aware.

'I was so stressed all the time ­ stressed because I felt like I had to keep defending myself.'

When the case reached the High Court in late November, Dr Neill said she was confident but couldn't relax for a minute. She didn't sleep during the three-day hearing and was so tired when it ended she didn't have the energy to worry about the verdict.

She said: 'I knew I was innocent but you are your own worst critic and in such a pressured situation you can't help but have doubts. Being cross-examined by my patient was the worst part and I got very upset and tearful.'

The judge's verdict ­ that Dr Neill had done nothing wrong and that even if she had been negligent it would have had no affect on her patient's condition ­ came a week later.

Dr Neill said: 'I was out shopping with my mum when my lawyer called. It was strange. I wasn't really relieved, just numb and shattered. There is just no way you can protect yourself from this sort of thing. It can come out of the blue.'

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