A major care group has been fined £1.6 million for allowing a 91-year-old woman to freeze to death in a Harrogate nursing home by failing to heat her room and provide her with any hot food or water.
York Crown Court heard that a startling lack of basic care had played a “substantial” role in Annie Barritt’s death from hypothermia.
Mrs Barritt, who was a dementia patient at Oaklands Country Rest Home in Kirk Hammerton, was found “ice cold” and not breathing by a night-shift nurse on Sunday, November 4.
The radiator in her room was not working and Mrs Barritt hadn’t been roused or given any hot sustenance all day. Mrs Barritt was taken to Harrogate District Hospital but died of hypothermia later that same day.
Her temperature was found to be 25.3 degrees centigrade - 10 degrees below the level at which hypothermia sets in.
Following her death, Maria Mallaband Care Group Ltd, the Leeds-based company which runs Oaklands and 30 other homes across the country, admitted an offence under Health and Safety legislation related to Mrs Barritt’s death.
On Wednesday, following a three-day hearing, the care group was fined £1.6 million and ordered to pay £45,560 costs.
Judge Paul Batty QC said that “systemic” failures in the home’s care and maintenance procedures, particularly regarding the faulty heating system, had played a “significant” role in Mrs Barritt’s death.
Mr Batty QC said the care group had played a significant role in “this human tragedy” because of basic flaws in its care plans.
He said: “In my judgement, the failure to revise Mrs Barritt’s care plan (following a hospital warning about her temperature) was indicative of a wider picture in relation to other residents, and that this wasn’t an isolated occurrence.
“The death of this much-loved lady, I regret to say, was an accident waiting to happen.”
The court heard that radiators in several rooms at the 14-bed Acorn Suite - an Oaklands unit catering for people with dementia, including Mrs Barritt - were not working due to faulty valves and poor maintenance, which had been left in the hands of a handyman without due experience or qualifications.
Barrister David Hercock, prosecuting for Harrogate District Council, described maintenance and other procedures at the nursing home as hazardous and defective.
Crucially, the group failed to install thermometers in rooms in line with national guidelines, which could have flagged up any lurking dangers when the temperature dropped dangerously low.
He said the odd-job man was the only maintenance worker on site despite the care group’s £50 million-plus annual turnover.
Two weeks before Mrs Barritt’s death, the county council had suspended any further referrals to Oaklands after a routine inspection revealed that some residents’ care plans were two years out of date.
Mr Hercock said management had failed to keep Mrs Barritt warm and maintain the room temperature at a safe level despite their previously being warned by care staff and other residents that rooms were too cold.
Staff at the home had repeatedly warned management for two years that the oil-fired heating system didn’t work properly, but no remedial action was taken.
The court heard that the home - which was said to be heavily reliant on agency staff - had run out of fuel on several occasions during the two winters before Mrs Barritt’s death.
Mr Hercock said the deputy manager was in charge on the day Mrs Barritt died despite previously telling management he wasn’t capable of overseeing the unit and didn’t have the expertise to look after the elderly.
Barrister James Maxwell-Scott QC, for the care group, said that since Mrs Barritt’s death, thermometers had been installed in all 2,600 rooms across the care group’s estate.
Mr Maxwell-Scot said the company - which has recently posted annual trading losses of £4.2 million - had offered to pay £250,000 of the £1.6 million within a month.
Following sentencing, David and Anthony Barritt, the sons of the deceased said: “We would like to extend our thanks to Tony Moule and his team from Harrogate Borough Council for their hard and detailed work which resulted in this case finally being brought to court. Throughout the proceedings they have liaised with us in a very helpful and sympathetic way.
“The last four years have been very hard for the family, coming to terms with the tragic circumstances of mum’s death from hypothermia. It is hard to believe that an elderly lady with dementia could be treated in such an appalling way in a care home that claimed to specialise in the care of such vulnerable people.
“A fine, no matter how large, could ever replace a loved one; what price can you put on your mother’s life? We can only hope that mother’s sad and unnecessary death may be served to improve standards at Maria Mallaband Care Group’s care homes and god willing prevent such a tragic event from ever happening again.”
Tony Moule, the Environmental Health Officer at Harrogate Borough Council who conducted the investigation said: “Our investigation revealed that there were a number of serious failures with regard to health and safety legislation. These are in place to ensure the well-being of care home residents and we welcome the court’s decision to impose a significant fine.
“No fine can ever compensate the family for the loss of their mother in such shocking circumstances. For an elderly vulnerable person to suffer hypothermia, whilst in bed in her room under the care of a national care provider, beggars belief.
“Care homes must take their responsibilities seriously and Maria Mallaband Care Group Limited failed in its duty of care. We hope that this case sends out a message which will help to ensure that such events don’t happen in the future.”