Police investigate woman's death after paracetamol overdose in Merseyside hospital

Helen Pidd North of England editor
Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Police are investigating how hospital staff gave a 30-year-old woman an overdose of paracetamol shortly before she died, as a coroner began an inquest to determine whether it had caused her death.

Laura Higginson, a mother with two children, from Widnes, Merseyside, died in Whiston hospital, in Prescot, on 19 April 2017. Her family said they were initially told she died from sepsis and organ failure, but several months later learned that she had been given too much paracetamol for two days in the fortnight before her death.

Medics realised their mistake after giving her too high a dose for two days and administered an antidote. But allegedly they failed to tell her husband, Antony Higginson. He said he only found out about the overdose when his GP sent him a copy of the postmortem report months later.

Higginson said he was “apoplectic” that no one had previously mentioned it. Ever since his discovery he has been fighting to find out whether the overdose caused her death and who was responsible for giving the dose that was too high for his wife’s very slender frame. At the time she was very underweight, a symptom of a rare kidney disorder named Gitelman syndrome.

The hospital, part of the St Helens and Knowsley teaching hospitals NHS trust, belatedly admitted that for two days its staff administered a dose to his wife that was suitable for a heavier woman.

Although taken safely by millions of people every day, paracetamol, ingested in the wrong quantities, is the most common cause of liver failure in Britain.

The hospital trust does not accept that the overdose caused her death. A coroner initially decided not to open an inquest into her death, prompting Higginson to campaign against that decision. He said he hired lawyers at “enormous emotional and financial costs to the family” to find out the truth.

Last week, Julie Goulding, the new senior coroner for Sefton, Knowsley and St Helens, decided she did have a duty to investigate the death of Laura Higginson, after receiving “fresh medical evidence”.

Slater and Gordon, solicitors representing her husband in his attempt to sue the hospital trust for clinical negligence, had provided the coroner evidence from an expert witness claiming that the overdose had caused his wife’s premature death.

Opening and then adjourning the inquest on Thursday at Southport town hall, Goulding said: “The inquest will now be adjourned to enable the investigation to take place … The important thing to say is that, should there be [criminal] charges brought in respect of this matter in due course, then the [inquest’s] investigation is highly likely to be suspended.”

The inquest heard that a postmortem on 24 April 2017 found that Laura Higginson died from multiple organ failure due to micronodular cirrhosis.

Merseyside police said: “We can confirm that an investigation is currently under way following the death of Laura Higginson at Whiston hospital on 19 April 2017. As such it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”

Higginson’s lawyer, John Doyle, said: “The trust have now, after three years, admitted that administering the paracetamol overdose was negligent, however they continue to deny it caused or contributed to Laura’s death.

“Given Laura’s incredibly tragic premature death, it is disappointing Mr Higginson and the family has had to wait so long, but it is right that failings are now recognised by the [NHS] trust and due process is followed.”

An NHS trust spokesperson said: “The trust offers its sincere condolences to the family of the late Mrs Higginson. Following her death an immediate and thorough investigation was carried out. The findings of independent clinical experts do not concur with the views of Mr Higginson and will be presented to the coroner during the inquest.”