Inquest into death of Co Waterford couple’s baby conducted fairly, court hears

Natasha Cummins and Aiden Spencer claim an inquest jury’s verdict that their baby son died of natural causes is ‘irrational’

The inquest into the death of a Co Waterford couple’s baby was conducted “professionally and fairly”, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for the Cork City Coroner said his client took a “facilitative” approach to overseeing inquests and the couple could have raised any concerns they had about the process at the time of the hearing.

Natasha Cummins and Aiden Spencer, of Cappoquinn, Co Waterford, claim the coroner did not adequately direct the jury on certain matters and the verdict of death by natural causes simpliciter was “irrational” and not supported by the evidence before the inquest.

They claim Ms Cummins was a high-risk pregnancy as her first child was delivered by Caesarean section and that the medical care during her labour, and the use of oxytocin, were material circumstances relevant to the death of her baby and its causes.

Their claims are denied.

On Wednesday, Mícheál P O’Higgins SC, for coroner Philip Comyn, said the judicial review challenge concerned the outcome of a process that appeared to have been conducted “professionally and fairly” by his client.

Mr O’Higgins said there was a high test for finding a decision was irrational and the court must be satisfied the verdict “flies in the face of reason” or that there was no material before the jury to support it.

The couple claims the coroner did not properly charge the jury before retiring and the verdict was affected, or probably affected, by the pressure of time in which to reach a verdict. The jury retired to consider its verdict at 4.35pm and gave the verdict at 5pm.

Coroner Philip Comyn’s September 10th, 2020 recording of the inquest jury’s verdict stated the disease/condition leading to death was “acute hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy due to intra-uterine hypoxia due to placental malperfusion [an association of encephalopathy]”.

Mr O’Higgins told Ms Justice Marguerite Bolger that the plaintiffs had made a general averment that the jury was placed under time pressure, but the assertion was “vague”. Mr Comyn had cleared his diary and was operating on the basis that the case would run into a second day, while the courthouse facilities were also available, said counsel.

Mr O’Higgins said it “simply would not have been appropriate” for the coroner to have urged certain aspects of the evidence relating to medical care and the administration of oxytocin in his summing up of the case for the jury when these matters were “hotly contested” by the medical expert witnesses.

There are rules that prohibit coroners from investigating civil liability during inquests and the approach advanced by the plaintiffs would have breached those rules, counsel added.

In their action against the Cork City Coroner, the couple is asking the High Court to overturn the jury’s verdict and direct that a new inquest be held to establish the cause of death.

Ms Cummins, accompanied by Mr Spencer, attended University Hospital Waterford at about noon on July 13th, 2018, to give birth. It is claimed that despite being high-risk, Ms Cummins was given oxytocin and this was continued beyond the recommended timeline.

When fully dilated some 34 hours after her admission to hospital, and after five hours of oxytocin, it is claimed, she was directed to deliver her baby vaginally.

She allegedly suffered a uterine rupture which resulted in a severe and sustained drop in the foetal heartbeat, causing a lack of oxygen to the baby’s brain.

An emergency Caesarean section was undertaken and the baby was born alive at 7.57pm on July 14th, 2018 but “flat”. He was placed on life support and moved to Cork University Hospital where the life support was turned off just after midnight on July 18th, 2018.

University Hospital Waterford is on notice of the proceedings, while the couple has no concerns about the baby’s treatment in Cork.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter