Appeal court refuses to overturn verdict that newborn baby died due to natural causes

Tommy Spencer was born in University Hospital Waterford on July 14th, 2018, and died four days later

A Co Waterford couple have lost their appeal against the High Court’s refusal to overturn a jury’s verdict that their newborn baby died of natural causes.

The Court of Appeal on Monday upheld the lower court’s findings and refused to direct a fresh inquest into the death of Tommy Spencer.

Tommy was born at University Hospital Waterford on July 14th, 2018, and died four days later at Cork University Maternity Hospital.

His parents, Natasha Cummins and Aiden Spencer, said they were “aggrieved and upset” by the “irrational” inquest verdict delivered by a jury on September 10th, 2020.


They wanted the verdict overturned, and a new inquest ordered, due to alleged failings by the Cork City coroner in his charge to the jury. They also asked the court to declare that the medical care during Ms Cummins’s labour, and in particular the use of oxytocin, are “material circumstances” relevant to their son’s death.

The couple claimed there was a failure to monitor alleged hyperstimulation and that contraction augmentation drug oxytocin should have been discontinued earlier during Ms Cummins’s labour.

The allegations were denied, and the High Court was satisfied the Cork City coroner, Philip Comyn, conducted the inquest into Tommy’s death appropriately.

In her judgment, delivered last November, Ms Justice Marguerite Bolger said the couple chose not to call any medical witnesses at the High Court hearing, instead relying on heart rate monitoring data from around the time of the birth.

She did not accept that the monitoring data equated to medical evidence when there was clear medical evidence showing the drug was appropriately administered. Medical witnesses strongly disputed the claims, while a midwife told the inquest Ms Cummins had reassuring heartrate monitoring results and there was no evidence of hyperstimulation, the judge said.

In a ruling on behalf of the three-judge Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Meenan said the High Court was correct to conclude there was evidence before the jury upon which it could lawfully return a verdict of natural causes.

He said various propositions were put by lawyers for the couple to medical and midwifery witnesses at the inquest. However, no medical or midwifery evidence was called by their side to support these propositions.

Mr Justice Meenan echoed the High Court’s observation that there is an “obvious and fundamental difference between evidence given and propositions made”.

The couple had challenged in the High Court Mr Comyn’s direction to the jury about the verdicts that were open for them to return. The appeal court found Ms Justice Bolger was correct to emphasise the fact that the couple’s lawyers did not seek to challenge this direction by the coroner at the time.

Mr Justice Meenan noted Ms Cummins and Mr Spencer were represented at the inquest by a solicitor and a senior counsel who addressed the jury for some 20 minutes at the conclusion of the evidence.

The Coroners Act of 1962 expressly excludes questions of civil liability being considered or investigated at inquests, Mr Justice Meenan said. Therefore, the verdict sought by Ms Cummins and Mr Spencer “would not have been permissible”, as it clearly questions the care given and the use of oxytocin by medical and midwifery staff.

Mr Justice Senan Allen and Ms Justice Tara Burns agreed with his decision to dismiss the appeal.

The court’s provisional view is that the couple, having been unsuccessful in their appeal, should pay for the coroner’s legal costs.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is an Irish Times reporter