A FAMILY has won a landmark case against a hospital trust that allowed a young mum’s body to decompose to the point that third-party involvement in her death was unable to be ruled out.

In a judgement handed down today, Judge Andrew Saffman concluded Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust had breached the human rights of Emily Whelan’s family by failing to preserve her body and awarded them damages.

Matthew Gold, solicitor for the Whelan family, said it was the first time a court had ruled a hospital has a legal obligation to treat a body with dignity and respect to ensure it does not badly decompose to prevent a breach of Article 8 of European Convention of Human Rights, the right to respect for private and family life.

The case was brought by six of Emily’s family members, led by her mother, Caramella Brennan.

Speaking after the ruling, Mrs Brennan, from Ilkley, said: “Emily’s family was devastated after we were informed that her body had only been refrigerated and not frozen by the Leeds General Infirmary after her death.

"We were told not to view her body because she had so badly decomposed we would not recognise her. The Leeds NHS Trust has failed to accept any responsibility for its role in this terrible incident and the impact it has had on us. The Trust has fought the family right through the case. The family’s conviction in wanting to hold the hospital to account for its unacceptable conduct has been vindicated by the court. 

“We could not have done more to respect our memories of Emily and the role she played in all our lives.”

Emily, 25, was found unresponsive in her bedroom in Yeadon, on November 7, 2016 and rushed by ambulance to Leeds General Infirmary (LGI).

Medics were initially told she had suffered an epileptic seizure, but her family insisted that Emily had never had any significant issues with the condition she had managed since childhood.

She died in hospital the next day, on November 8, with an initial cause of death given as a hypoxic-ischaemic brain injury – lack of oxygen to the brain – after a cardiac arrest.

However, the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest was not determined and her family suspected foul play, but when the pathologist came to examine her body, third party involvement was unable to be ruled out because of decomposition.

Emily’s body had been stored in the hospital’s mortuary until December 23, 2016, before it was transferred to the Bradford mortuary.

During a hearing in November last year, Leeds County Court head details of how her body was in a “poor state” upon arrival in Bradford, and how her body had only been stored in a fridge rather than frozen.

Mrs Brennan told the Telegraph & Argus last year: “No one deserves to be treated like this, not in life or in death. Now we’ll never know exactly what happened to her. 
“We had to fight for a forensic post mortem and we had expected that her body would be stored and kept properly, until we could have her body back and be able to bury her.”

Emily’s family sued both Bradford Council, which is responsible for the city’s mortuary, and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the mortuary at LGI. The Bradford mortuary, which also only stored Emily’s body in a fridge, accepted it breached the Human Rights Act as the body was not shown dignity and respect, and settled the case.

However, Leeds NHS Hospital Trust denied liability, resulting in the hearing.

Mr Gold said: “To permit a body to so badly decompose that it becomes unrecognisable is not just morally repugnant it is now unlawful.  

The family’s long and hard fight against the Leeds NHS Trust has been vindicated and will hopefully, as the judgment points out, result in mortuaries improving their practices to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust has been contacted for comment.