A health authority has been rapped on the knuckles by the Court of Appeal for destroying patients' x-rays after three years, in disregard of litigation time limits. West Lancashire HA landed an out-of-time negligence action which it might have avoided had it kept the xrays.

Actions must normally be brought within three years of the date when the plaintiff knows they have a cause of action, though the court has a discretion to allow a claim to go ahead outside the time limit. HAs usually try to have the claim struck out on the grounds that it is barred by the Limitation Act 1980, which lays down the time limits, and they will be prejudiced by having to defend an action so many years later, when witnesses' memories will have faded.

The widower of a patient brought an action outside the three-year limit. His solicitor wrote a letter before action requesting her notes. But the HA destroyed the x-rays. It told Judge Michael Evans at Aberystwyth county court that it did so because x-rays were not considered to be part of the patient's notes. The judge said that was 'wholly unacceptable, showing a cavalier disregard for the rights of patients to have access to their records'.

The Appeal Court dismissed the HA's appeal and said that any HA with such a policy would have any prejudice it claimed to suffer through having to defend a time-barred action 'significantly discounted'. Lord Justice Ward said that Judge Evans' view that when notes were requested x-rays should be sent with them was 'a permissible view with which I would not want to interfere'.