NHS breast surgeon, 57, sacked after setting patient on fire wins £65k

NHS breast surgeon, 57, who was sacked after setting patient on FIRE wins £65,000 in race and unfair dismissal claim

  • Breast specialist Obi Iwuchukwu, 57, sacked after a fire caused burns to a patient
  • During an operation in 2013 alcoholic antiseptic ignited due to his surgical tool
  • Five years later surgeon has won £65,000 for unfair dismissal and discrimination

An NHS surgeon sacked after a patient was accidentally set on fire during an operation has won almost £65,000 in a race and unfair dismissal claim.

Breast specialist Obi Iwuchukwu, 57, was suspended after a woman suffered major burns whilst he operated on her in August 2013.

Mr Iwuchukwu had used an alcoholic antiseptic on the patient that ignited like a ‘flash of lightning’ when he then attempted to use a heated surgical tool to sterilise wounds. 

All staff involved in the incident at the South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust hospital received counselling, an employment tribunal heard.

Breast specialist Obi Iwuchukwu, 57, was suspended after a woman suffered a major burn whilst he had been operating on her in August 2013

An investigation was launched and Mr Iwuchukwu was eventually sacked after further concerns were raised about his performance.

More than five years later – and after a lengthy legal battle – the surgeon has won compensation, successfully arguing that he had been unfairly dismissed and racially discriminated against by the hospital trust.

However, the damages he will receive are nowhere near the £5million he was originally seeking.

The latest tribunal in Newcastle heard that Mr Iwuchukwu, originally from Nigeria, started work in Sunderland as a general surgeon with an interest in breast surgery in 2007. 

During his time there he had a number of run-ins with colleagues, the panel was told.

The serious fire took place during an operation at a South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Trust hospital in August 2013

This included an incident in which he clashed with a German colleague who had told him ‘we are not operating out of a hut in Congo’ to which Mr Iwuchukwu replied that Britain is ‘not like Nazi Germany’.

The tribunal also heard how colleagues had begun to have concerns about Mr Iwuchukwu’s performance, in particular the number of complications his patients suffered after surgery. 

Then on a ‘fateful day’ in August 2013 a serious incident took place during an operation he was conducting. 

The tribunal panel was told: ‘During the operation he was handed an alcohol, rather than aqueous, based antiseptic solution which he applied to the patient.

‘He then used a diathermy pen which targets electrically induced heat to stop the wound from bleeding. It ignited the alcohol preparation and the patient suffered a major burn.

‘It was described in the subsequent investigation as though a flash of lightning had entered the theatre. All staff were given counselling.’

The hospital suspended Mr Iwuchukwu – the only black man of African origin working there – and launched a series of investigations before concluding in November that year that ‘system error’ rather than individual human error was mostly to blame, the tribunal heard.

Despite this the hospital continued with the surgeon’s suspension without reviewing whether he could return to work in some fashion.

In addition, two grievances that Mr Iwuchukwu launched in 2014 against his bosses, complaining that he was being unfairly treated were mostly ignored.

The tribunal heard that the trust did not hold a formal ‘capability’ hearing into the surgeon until March of 2015.

At that meeting a report from the Royal College of Surgeons raised concerns about Mr Iwuchukwu’s abilities and the hospital decided to sack him. 

In the recent tribunal employment Judge Andrew Buchanan suggested that the sacking was a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction and more could have been done to create a plan to bring Mr Iwuchukwu back to work.

Judge Buchanan said: ‘No analysis was carried out of the extent of [Mr Iwuchukwu’s] practice which was giving rise to concern and no consideration was given to anything other than a blanket exclusion,’ 

‘Everything points to the exclusion…being a knee-jerk reaction to the serious incident on 13 August 2013 on the assumption that the claimant was responsible for it but it became clear by early November 2013, at the latest, that [it] was not the fault of [Mr Iwuchukwu]. 

Judge Buchanan added that ‘there was no review of the blanket exclusion’ and that  if the hospital had acted differently there was a chance Mr Iwuchkwu could have been allowed to continue some clinical work. 

As it was, following his dismissal the surgeon moved to Cornwall to take up supervised operations and has continued to work in NHS hospitals, where he is currently earning more than £100,000 a year.

The failure by the trust to properly investigate Mr Iwuchkwu’s grievances in May and October 2014 constituted racial discrimination and harassment, the panel concluded.

Following numerous employment tribunal hearings and a case at the Court of Appeal, the trust has now been ordered to pay the surgeon a total of £63,504 for the unfair dismissal and race discrimination claims.

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