Charles Oppelt was 17 years old when he suffered a severe neck injury during a scrum in a rugby match in Mamre. He was treated at the Conradie Hospital Spinal Unit, regrettably only 13 hours after his injury, where a rapid closed reduction procedure was carried out. Today Mr. Oppelt is severely paralysed.
Mr. Oppelt, represented by Scheibert & Associates Inc., instituted a claim for damages in the Western Cape High Court against the Provincial Health Department as well as the South African Rugby Union (SARU), Boland Rugby Club and the Mamre Rugby Club. Mr. Oppelt’s claim against the Provincial Health Department was based on its failure to provide adequate and timeous medical treatment at the various hospitals in the Western Cape which he was taken to.
In November 2012 the Western Cape High Court dismissed the claim against the rugby organisations. The Court, however, found that the Provincial Health Department had failed to timeously treat Mr Oppelt’s spinal injury and agreed with an expert for Mr. Oppelt who held that had a rapid closed reduction been performed within 4 hours after his injury he would probably not have become a quadriplegic. The High Court further found that the unreasonable delay in treating Mr. Oppelt amounted to a failure to provide emergency medical treatment on the part of the Provincial Health Department. In August 2014 the Provincial Health Department appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).
The SCA questioned the cogency of the evidence of Mr. Oppelt’s expert and found that on a balance of probabilities Mr. Oppelt had failed to prove that he probably would have recovered had the rapid reduction procedure been performed timeously. The SCA found for the Provincial Health Department, upheld the Appeal and dismissed Mr. Oppelt’s claim.
On 26 February 2015, Mr. Oppelt, represented by Scheibert & Associates Inc., took the unusual step and appealed the SCA’s decision to the Constitutional Court, claiming that the SCA’s evaluation and rejection of Mr. Oppelt’s expert’s evidence was misguided and amounted to a failure to afford him his constitutional right to a fair hearing. It was further submitted on behalf of Mr. Oppelt that the Provincial Health Department’s unreasonable delay in treating him amounted to a denial of his constitutional right to timeous emergency medical treatment. The Provincial Health Department opposed the Constitutional Court Appeal and argued that the SCA’s approach with regard to the evaluation of expert evidence was correct and that Mr Oppelt received medical treatment timeously bearing in mind its available resources and in terms of its referral path. The Provincial Health Department also argued that treatment could not reasonably have been administered within the four-hour period which the expert had maintained was critical and would in any event have been too late to cure Mr. Oppelt if the four-hour period was accepted as the cut-off point for successful treatment.
Judgement was reserved and is awaited with much anticipation, bearing in mind that it is likely to be a landmark decision with far-reaching repercussions.
–Watch this space for an update.