Tightrope Walking

IT’S FAIR TO SAY that Conrad Murray was extraordinarily unlucky to be sentenced to four years in prison for his contribution to the death of Michael Jackson. Had he been treating virtually any other patient, a criminal prosecution of any kind would have been highly unlikely.

However there is little doubt that he was professionally negligent and that this caused or contributed to Jackson’s death. Unfortunately it appears that Murray’s medical malpractice insurance would not have covered the £64m claim Jackson’s family are making (the money they say he would have made from his O2 concerts) even if he had been acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, since the policy apparently did not cover incidents involving general anaesthesia.

While Murray’s conduct, on any view, fell far short of what would be expected of a competent and responsible professional person, he appears to have been doing what his patient wanted him to do.

It appears Michael Jackson’s drug use was at dangerous levels long before he fell into Murray’s care, so Murray may in fact have thought that he was offering Jackson a safer option.

All professionals occasionally have to deal with the client who wants something that is not good for him. Lawyers and accountants do not generally hold their clients’ lives in their hands in these circumstances, but we often have to give advice that is contrary to our client’s wishes, and when the client is a wealthy celebrity whom we very much want to retain as a client, that job may be harder than usual.

The extraordinary incident that was revealed as part of the Leveson inquiry, involving supermodel Elle Macpherson’s tax advisor Mary-Ellen Field submitting to treatment for alcoholism (from which she did not suffer) to avoid being sacked, gives an indication of the lengths professionals will go to in order to avoid losing their celebrity clients.

As professionals we walk a thin tightrope a lot of the time. We have to balance what our clients want against what is good for them while ensuring that we also do what is good for us, in terms of making a living but not compromising professional integrity or exposing ourselves to professional negligence claims or disciplinary proceedings.

Dr Murray will pay a very high price for spectacularly falling off the tightrope. The rest of us need to keep working on our high wire skills.

Susan Brown heads the professional negligence team at law firm Prolegal

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