Byrzykowski v. Poland

Application No. 11562/05
Download Judgment: English Polish

Applicant, a Polish national, claimed violations of Articles 2 (right to life) and 6 (timely investigation) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when he was unable to convince authorities to investigate potential mistreatment of his wife, who fell into a coma and died during labor after receiving an epidural. Following the wife’s death, the applicant’s son, H, was delivered by caesarian section with permanent neurological damages requiring ongoing medical attention.

Applicant spent over seven years working to bring criminal, civil and disciplinary proceedings to investigate his wife’s death. All attempts proved futile. A police inquiry, opened in 1999 upon his request, was discontinued and resumed multiple times and, at the time of the applicant’s submission to the Court, criminal proceedings were still pending. The applicant also requested that disciplinary proceedings be brought in connection with the case. These proceedings were stayed and resumed at various times and were still pending when the case was filed. Finally, the applicant lodged a civil compensation claim against the hospital, but these proceedings were stayed pending the outcome of the disciplinary proceedings, and efforts to resume proceedings failed.

The Government claimed the applicant’s complaints were inadmissible–since criminal investigations, civil compensation proceedings and disciplinary proceedings were pending, the applicant’s complaint was premature. The Government also claimed the applicant had not exhausted all domestic remedies as he failed to lodge a complaint about a breach of his right to have his case heard within a reasonable time to a competent domestic court.

The Court found the State fulfilled its duty to provide procedures whereby the criminal, disciplinary or civil responsibility of potentially liable healthcare professionals could be established, however, the Court found that “in the circumstances of the case seen as a whole” the State failed to comply with its procedural requirements under Article 2. Despite recognition of the potential complexity of the medical questions involved in the case, the Court considered the overall length of the investigation unjustifiable.

The Court did not examine Article 6, it being closely linked to Article 2 and accordingly admissible.

"104. The Court reiterates that the acts and omissions of the authorities in the field of health care policy may in certain circumstances engage their responsibility under the positive limb of Article 2. However, where a Contracting State has made adequate provision for securing high professional standards among health professionals and the protection of the lives of patients, it cannot accept that matters such as error of judgment on the part of a health professional or negligent co-ordination among health professionals in the treatment of a particular patient are sufficient of themselves to call a Contracting State to account from the standpoint of its positive obligations under Article 2 of the Convention to protect life. However, having regard to the overall length of the period which has elapsed since the death of the applicant’s wife and also to the fact that the procedures instituted with a view to establishing the circumstances of her death seem rather to have hindered the overall progress in the proceedings, the Court is of the view that it cannot be said that the procedures applied in order to elucidate the allegations of medical malpractice resulted in an effective examination into the cause of death in the present case."

"117. Lastly, the Court observes that, apart from the concern for the respect of the rights inherent in Article 2 of the Convention in each individual case, more general considerations also call for a prompt examination of cases concerning death in a hospital setting. This is because the knowledge of facts and possible errors committed in the course of medical care should be established promptly in order to be disseminated to the medical staff of the institution concerned so as to prevent the repetition of similar errors and thereby contribute to the safety of users of all health services."