By. Pelumi Olajengbesi Esq.
The sordid narrative of medical practitioners refusing to attend to victims of gunshot or injuries sustained in circumstances that are potent with criminal liabilities, such as armed robbery, until what is generally known as police report (clearance) is presented is persevering as an unpleasant phenomenon in our society. Such a failure to act or deliberate inaction leads on, consequently, to an exacerbation of the victim’s pain, a worsening of the medical condition of the victim or even death.
Several health workers have watched people reel in pain, and eventually die from gunshot wounds because a police report was not presented at the point of treatment. This has continued despite public outcry and legislative intervention which has outlawed such a requirement as a condition for treatment of gunshot or related injuries.
This situation rather represents a classic experience of the Nigeria legal system where most of our laws remain unpopular and survive in breach. The attempt by some hospitals or medical practitioners to sustain such practice to excuse themselves from the necessary duty of care for a victim who immediately becomes their patient upon attending to the victim is primitive and cruel. On all fours, this erroneously suggests that where a victim’s health condition deteriorates within their facility, an action of negligence against the hospital or the medical practitioner cannot be maintained.
The Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshot Act 2017 was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari to bring this sad reality to a halt. The advent of this Act birthed the hope of the citizens for an end to the tragic tales of victims of gunshot refused treatment by healthcare providers on grounds of the requirement of a police report. A general overview of the Act is instructive.
The Act which places a duty of care upon health providers to first attend to victims of gunshots before demanding either payment or police clearance further robes the hospital, which receives or accepts any person with a gunshot wound, with the onus of reporting the fact to the nearest police station within two (2) hours of commencement of treatment. Also, as a part of its responsibilities, such hospital is mandated to notify the family members or relations of the victim as far as they may ascertain within twenty-four hours of becoming aware of the victim’s identity.
To ensure proper care of victims, the police is disallowed to receive any person with gunshot wounds from the hospital for the purposes of investigation unless and until the Chief Medical Director of the hospital certifies person fit and no longer in dire need of medical care. The police therefore cannot capriciously whisk victims in this circumstance into detention for investigation until the latter is confirmed fit for interrogations. This is in fulfilment of the fundamental human right of citizens to life.
The Act also imposes a duty on persons present, and able, to render every possible assistance to any person with gunshot wounds and ensure that the person is taken to the nearest hospital for immediate treatment. The law equally attempts to allay the usual fear of police intimidation and subsequent arrest by providing for respectful treatment of volunteers and helpers of gunshot victims and the avoidance of unnecessary and embarrassing interrogation in their genuine attempt to save a life.
To enforce the provisions of the law, punitive measures are put in place. The Act provides that any person who is guilty of an offence under the Act, especially when the offence does not lead to the death of a victim, but leads to substantial physical, mental, emotional and psychological damage, is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not more than 15 years and not less than 5 years without the option of fine. Also, any person or authority including any police officer or other security agents or hospital who stands by or omits to do his bit which results in the unnecessary death of any person with bullet wounds commits an offence and upon conviction is liable to five (5) years imprisonment or a fine of Fifty Thousand Naira (N50, 000.00) or both.
Additionally, the High Court is empowered to order a person or corporate body convicted of an offence, to make restitution to the victim by directing that person or corporate body to pay to the victim(s), an amount equivalent to the loss sustained by the victim(s). An order of restitution may be enforced by the victim or by the prosecutor on behalf of the victim in the same manner as a judgment in a civil action.
Despite the laudable provisions of this Act, the sad reality is that the law has been flagrantly disregarded more than it has been complied with. The example of the death of a youth corp member and many others is instructive. On Monday the 22nd of July 2019, news broke that one Mr. Precious Owolabi, a youth corp member serving at Channels Television News in Abuja, was shot while reporting the clash between the Nigerian Police Force (“NPF”) and members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (“IMN”).
The news spurred further outrage when it was reported that Mr. Owolabi was allegedly rejected by the various hospitals where he was taken to for treatment of his gunshot wounds, which unfortunately led to his untimely and preventable death. This devastating news has once more brought to the fore the applicability of the provisions of Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshot Act 2017 (“the Act”) in the circumstance as the law that regulates situations of this nature.
There is also the tragic case of one Adebayo Akinwunmi, a senior engineer of Ericsson who was attacked by armed robbers at his house in the Obafemi Owode Local Government Area of Ogun State. Mr. Adebayo Akinwunmi was shot in the rib by one of the robbers after he and his wife were raided and robbed of their ATM cards, phones and laptops. He was later rushed to a private medical facility within the area, but was however rejected as the doctors demanded for a police report for the gunshot injuries. The victim was rushed to his company hospital in Ikeja, yet they were faced with the same dilemma, as he was rejected without a police report. They finally referred the family to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), Ikeja, where they were informed that there was no surgeon to attend to the victim due to the ongoing strike action of medical doctors in the country. Mr. Adebayo Akinwunmi died in LASUTH as a result of these ordeals and nobody is in jail or facing criminal trial.
The hospital’s rejection of these cases verges on the abuse of the most important fundamental right – the right to life, imbibed and backed up by the Nigerian Constitution. In addition, the National Health Act 2014 which mandates Healthcare providers to treat patients that come in as an emergency is being flouted by medical practitioners in the guise of request for police report. Although the law provides that a healthcare provider, health worker or health establishment shall not refuse a person on emergency medical treatment for any reason and an offender under this law is liable to a fine of N100, 000.00, a jail term of six months or both upon conviction, the disregard for the law is most apparent.
It is noteworthy that the Robbery and Firearms Act does not provide for the presentation of Police report as a condition precedent for the treatment of gunshot victims. It is unknown what the source of this practice is. The request for a deposit before treatment of gunshot victims in emergency situations equally reeks of nothing but an unceremonious act of putting monetary gains before the life of the patient. This is in clear contradiction of the Hippocratic Oath and a condemnable act of therapeutic nihilism.
For the purpose of addressing the failure of healthcare providers to adhere to the provisions of the Compulsory Treatment and Care for Gunshot Victims Act, 2017 and to salvage the attendant mishap of avoidable deaths or complications, the following are recommended.
i. Sensitization of citizens of their rights and obligations under the Act. Government at all levels is encouraged to conduct awareness programs through appropriate information dissemination platforms, including the use of radio and television stations, social media platforms, posters at hospitals, and any other media outlet.
ii. Proactive measures must be taken by the Nigeria Police to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act. This may include charging erring healthcare providers and facilities for an offence under the Act.
iii. Hospital managements must mandate their health workers to attend to victims of gunshot, especially in cases of emergency without requesting for police clearance.
iv. Considering the amount of time required to stabilize victims of gunshots in very situations and the brevity of time left to reach out to the police, the period of two (2) hours given should be extended for small hospitals or clinics who do not have administrative staff. This is to allay the fear of liability despite efforts made to comply with the Act. If this is not done, small private hospitals (which staff are the nurses and doctors primarily in charge of the treatment) will have no other option than to refer victims to another hospital, in a diplomatic attempt to avoid liability.
The enactment of this Act, and the provisions under the Act is very timely and definitely a step in the right direction. It is not enough to have such Act, but imperative for citizens to be made aware of its provisions, and encouraged to strictly adhere to same (these provisions) by being aware of their rights and enforcing such rights. Hospitals and Doctors are also advised to adhere strictly to the provisions provided under this Act. The Nigerian Police force should also ensure that the rights of citizens are protected by strictly upholding and enforcing the provisions of this Act.
Pelumi Olajengbesi Esq., is the Principal Partner at Pelumi Olajengbesi & Co. Law Corridor.
Compulsory Treatment and Care for Victims of Gunshot Act 2017, Cap 141, LFN, 2004
Robbery and Firearms (Special Provisions) Act, Cap. 398 LFN 1990
National Health Act 2014
Police Act, Cap P.19, LFN 2004