In December 1988, Mr. Justice Alex Campbell of Prince Edward Island Supreme Court awarded over $3 million in damages to Heather and Gordon Rayner for the care of their seriously handicapped son, Aaron. It is the largest personal injury award in the history of the province.
The judgment took the Island community by surprise for there had been no advance publicity. “We wanted no jury, just a judge, and as little publicity as possible. We were not out to ‘get’ the doctors, but just to be provided for the care of our little boy,” said the Rayners.
The young couple lives in a mobile home in a small rural community a few miles form the western tip of P.E.I. Gordon Rayner is a fisherman.
Their son is a beautifully formed child with blue eyes and blond hair. He is also quadriplegic. Since his birth on March 5, 1985, Aaron has required constant attention. He is unable to swallow so he must be fed through a tube, and continuously suctioned. For his first year, he suffered from apnea, a disorder in which breathing ceases, and had to be constantly monitored during sleep.
He has no voluntary control over his muscles, so he cannot move himself or sit up without assistance and support. Muscle spasms cause his body to arch in awkward position, so that physiotherapy and frequent manipulation are essential for muscle relaxation and development.
In addition, though Aaron’s blue eyes are normal in appearance, the impulses received by his brain appear to convey little meaning, and his ability to interpret sounds may be defective.
Like all parents, Heather and Gordon Rayner are quick to point out their child’s accomplishments. “Aaron does recognize our voices and responds to them. When he hears unfamiliar voices he becomes quiet and withdrawn.” Though he cannot articulate, he does cry and laugh and makes other sounds in response to his family.
Twenty-one and twenty-two when their child was born, Heather and Gordon have provided constant care for Aaron, except for a few hours off weekly when local registered nurses take over. He will need a similar level of care for the rest of his life, totally dependent on others to attend to all his needs.
In Mr. Justice Campbell’s judgment, the little boy’s multiple handicaps resulted directly from the medical negligence of David Knickle and Mary Kingston, two experienced and highly regarded Charlottetown doctors, in connection with an amniocentesis test carried out two weeks before Aaron’s birth.
“Aaron is very fortunate to have the parents he does,” says their lawyer. “In determining the amount of the award, Mr. Justice Campbell also noted the need to construct a special home to meet Aaron’s physical needs, something the Rayners are unable to afford on Gordon’s income. Already their mobile home is becoming crowded, as second son Timothy begins to walk. A third child is expected in April.
“We’re thankful that Aaron is now going to be assured of the care that he needs,” says his parents. But they add that they would quickly trade the large settlement for a healthy child.
As their lawyer pointed out to the local papers, the Rayners were not acting out of a desire for revenge. They started the action simply because they wanted to ensure their son’s long term care.
The Rayners elaborate: “People speak highly of the two doctors. They have done many women good, and will continue to do so. We have no ill feelings toward them. We have nothing to gain by holding hatred and bitterness.”
Given their youth, their inexperience, the nature of their child’s handicaps and needs, how have Heather and Gordon found the strength to keep going for almost four years? They say prayer and the grace of God has had much to do with it. Members of Apostolic Pentecostal Church, they say, “God kept us going. He made us strong.”
The judgment is still open to appeal by the two doctors. But Heather and Gordon Rayner say, “God brought us this far, He will take us the rest of the way.”
This procedure involves extraction of a small sample of the amniotic fluid that surrounds the developing child in the mother’s uterus. Tests carried out on the fluid can reveal many things about the condition of the developing child.
When the test was conducted on Heather Rayner, the needle inserted through her abdomen into her uterus drew blood. In itself that is not unusual. This time, though, the results were tragic – perhaps in part because there was incomplete communication when one doctor was asked to cover for the other.
Mr. Justice Campbell concluded that the injury to the baby resulted from an interruption of the oxygen flow to the child, caused by a hematoma (blood clot or bruise) on the umbilical cord, in turn caused by a needle puncture during the amniocentesis test.
He found both doctors guilty of negligence because they failed to test the blood to determine if it was from mother of child, failed to monitor mother and baby following the test, and failed to deliver the baby by Caesarean section in time to avoid permanent brain damage. He concluded that they had also failed to obtain her informed consent for the test.
The settlement awarded by Mr. Justice Campbell is high, but it is simply a careful calculation of what it will cost Heather and Gordon to provide adequately for the care of their son during his projected lifetime of 32 years.
It provides for special equipment (very, very expensive, say the Rayners), special nursing care, occupational and physiotherapy, and respite for the parents. Since Aaron’s birth, such assistance has been provided through the provincial Department of Health and Social Services, as has training for the parents in attending to their child’s needs.
Because Gordon’s work as a fisherman is seasonal, he is free in the off season to help Heather care for Aaron and a younger son, Timothy. Together they learned a great deal through constant and careful loving attention to Aaron’s needs. At times they surprised the therapists with the discoveries they had made on their own.
On January 17, 1989, the doctors appealed the court’s decision.