Victims of the CervicalCheck scandal are pleading for other women to be spared the ordeal that a terminally-ill cancer patient was put through, to win her landmark compensation case.
They called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to honour his promise that no woman would be dragged through the courts, and urged him to reconsider the terms of a planned compensation tribunal which they say will operate just like a court, but behind closed doors.
Their calls came after Ruth Morrissey and her husband Paul, of Monaleen, Co Limerick, were awarded €2.1m in damages against the HSE and two laboratories that failed to spot problems with her smear tests in 2009 and 2012.
The 37-year-old mother of a seven-year-old girl was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014 and has been told she is unlikely to survive beyond two years.
Delivering his judgment, Judge Kevin Cross said her life had been ruined.
The HSE, which runs the CervicalCheck screening programme, and the two companies, MedLab and Quest Diagnostics, which analysed her smear tests, denied responsibility and fought Ms Morrissey for 37 days in the High Court, but Mr Justice Cross held them jointly and equally liable for what happened.
A relieved and emotional Ms Morrissey left court saying: “I just want to move on and spend whatever quality time I’ve left with my daughter.”
Yet just hours later, MedLab issued a statement welcoming the determination that its lab “was not negligent in its review and interpretation of Ms Morrissey’s 2012 slide”, and said it would be reviewing the judgment in full “with a view to appeal”.
Solicitor for the Morrisseys, Cian O’Carroll, said the company’s statement was “poorly judged”.
“It’s amazing how they can be so delighted when the court said that they are equally responsible with the HSE and Quest Diagnostics for the full value of €2.16m in damages for costing a woman her life,” he said.
If an appeal is lodged, it need not necessarily delay the payout of damages.
Mr O’Carroll said it would be at the judge’s discretion to direct full or partial payment or a stay on payment when the court resumes to consider the matter next week.
Ms Morrissey’s case is the first to go to full hearing since screening blunders emerged when Vicky Phelan took her case last year, followed by the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna.
Both of their cases were settled, so the significance of Ruth Morrissey’s win is that it establishes firmly that the HSE bears responsibility for the failings of the companies it contracts to carry out work, so that in future, women should only have to take on the State instead of preparing cases against multiple defendants.
Ms Morrissey, standing with the aid of a crutch, held back tears as she thanked her extended family, medical and legal team, and especially her husband Paul, “my rock”.
The couple kissed to mark the end of their long legal battle which began last summer, but Ms Morrissey’s thoughts were with the other women whose fight is only beginning.
“I did not think I would be in this position because our Taoiseach told us none of us would have to go through this, but unfortunately I am the one who had to do it,” she said.
I hope that’s a positive thing, so the women who are left, they don’t need to do this and fight for their right to have a good life of what they’ve left.
She also encouraged all women to continue getting smear tests. “It’s very important. Even though it failed me, it does save many many lives.”
More than 200 women developed cancer after CervicalCheck failings, and dozens have lodged papers with the High Court, though they may opt for the tribunal whenever it begins.
Reminded of his pledge last year that women would be spared court trials, Mr Varadkar said he had genuinely hoped that no woman would have to go to court, but it was clear that not all cases could be resolved without litigation.
He said he was working with Health Minister Simon Harris and the attorney general to finalise the arrangements for the tribunal as soon as possible.
Stephen Teap, whose wife Irene died after her tests were misread, urged them to hurry, describing what Ms Morrissey had been put through as “inhumane”.
The 221 Plus advocacy group also criticised the court process.
“Cases like this are a no-win situation for all involved. It highlights our deepest concerns about the raw and needless cruelty of forcing women, who it is accepted have already been wronged by the State, into an adversarial public legal process that makes them feel like they are ‘on trial’ just to establish the profile or the extent of that wrong and how it happened. This is simply unacceptable,” it said.
A better and more compassionate mechanism is required as a priority to enable those involved establish the basis of the wrong done to them in private, without being put through that adversity.
Reservations have also been expressed about the planned tribunal, which will also be an adversarial forum. “The tribunal is not to settle cases — it is the High Court behind closed doors,” said Mr O’Carroll.
Vicky Phelan said she was also concerned that women opting for the tribunal would still be required to take a stand and argue their case, just without publicity.
“The State can do something here,” she said. “The State can go ahead and intervene so that these cases can be settled faster, in a more conciliatory way.”
She pointed out that the State did not have to be at a financial loss, as under an indemnity clause, it could pursue the laboratories for losses due to their failings.