18/01/03 - South China Morning Post

The trial will scrutinise the Hospital Authority’s treatment of Indian Harinder Veriah

An author and journalist who accused Hong Kong medical staff of racism after his Indian wife died in the Ruttonjee Hospital has launched a High Court action to seek damages over her death. Martin Jacques has begun litigation against the Hospital Authority three years after his wife, solicitor Harinder Veriah, died following an epileptic fit she suffered while celebrating the new millennium.

The High Court action will not only focus on allegations that Veriah, a mother-of-one, died because of medical negligence, but also put on trial Hong Kong’s reputation for racial tolerance.

Mr Jacques, who now lives in Britain, sparked a public debate on racism in Hong Kong when he accused Ruttonjee staff of prejudice.

At the Hong Kong inquest into his wife’s death in November 2000, he said: “She told me ‘I am at the bottom of the pile’. I was very shocked and said ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘I am the only Indian here, everyone else is Chinese’.”

Although Ruttonjee Hospital has vehemently denied racism, Mr Jacques has been waging a high-profile campaign ever since, insisting that his wife had been maltreated because of her race.

Mr Jacques has declined to talk about the lawsuit. His solicitor, Patrick Burke, also refused to comment but said plaintiffs must file a writ within three years of an incident or within three years of discovering negligence.

Barrister Jeevan Hingorami, who represented Veriah’s employers Lovells at the Hong Kong inquest, said: “I told him [Mr Jacques] on a number of occasions that discrimination could never form part of the claim against the hospital.

“[However] I know that he feels very strongly about it and I can understand that.

“He has obtained medical reports and although I have not read them, I understand they are favourable in terms of instigating proceedings.”

The inquest heard that Malaysian-born Veriah, 33, had collapsed on January 1 in Causeway Bay.

Initially taken to Tang Shiu Kin Hospital, she was subsequently transferred to the Ruttonjee. Although in a stable condition on her admission to the hospital, this changed at about 8.35am on January 2, when she had another fit.

A nurse had been instructed to inject her with 3mg of Valium by Chan Tai-kin, and Veriah’s condition improved.

However, the nurse later noticed that Veriah’s blood-oxygen level had not changed, even though she had received extra oxygen. When the patient still failed to respond after being given more oxygen, the nurse called Dr Chan to resuscitate her.

Veriah later stopped breathing, had a cardiac arrest and was declared dead at 12.15pm. A post mortem could not determine the cause of death.

Recording a verdict of death by natural causes, Coroner Andrew Chan Hing-Wai said epilepsy sometimes claimed otherwise healthy young adults.

The coroner made no reference to allegations by her husband that Ruttonjee staff discriminated against his wife because of her race.

On his return to London, however, Mr Jacques managed to secure a second inquest in Britain in June 2002.

Coroner Stephen Chan, of St Pancras Coroner’s Court, subsequently recorded an open verdict.

The coroner said that serious questions had to be raised about the quality of care she received.

The court was told how Veriah was not administered the drugs she required, and had died 20 min after hospital staff failed to respond effectively to her breathing problems.

Reports compiled by British doctors and presented to the inquest claimed that both were signs of negligence that led to her death.

Dr Chan said: “Mr Jacques will no doubt have a long hard road before him in seeking redress and I wish him every success.

“On the evidence before me, there are questions as to the level of care given to this most unfortunate woman in those final 20 minutes and the levels of management and care during her short stay in hospital.”

The writ, which was filed in late December, makes a claim against the Hospital Authority for damages. It says negligence led to the failed treatment of Veriah following her admission to the Tang Shiu Kin and Ruttonjee hospitals.

Although the financial claim is not specified, a personal-damages specialist, who declined to be named, estimated that damages could reach $5 million.

– Adam Luck