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Doctor claims damning Veronica Nelson findings unfair

Cassandra Morgan -

A coroner who investigated the death of an Aboriginal woman who died alone in a prison cell ignored key evidence when he unfairly sullied a doctor's reputation, a barrister says.

Medical practitioner Sean Runacres was a doctor on duty on New Year's Eve in 2019 when Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Nelson arrived at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.

During an inquest into the woman's death, Dr Runacres admitted making errors in Ms Nelson's medical paperwork and said he wouldn't have conducted a physical examination on her without a female nurse present.

However, lawyers in Dr Runacres' appeal against the Coroners Court of Victoria on Tuesday argued that one comment wasn't the "be all and end all", especially when the doctor could not remember assessing Ms Nelson.

The evidence instead suggested Dr Runacres examined Ms Nelson adequately, including by assessing her lungs and abdomen as he recorded in his notes, his barrister Chris Winneke KC said.

CCTV showed the doctor had more than enough time to physically examine Ms Nelson while he was in her cell, and he left the room holding his stethoscope differently to when he entered, the barrister said.

Dr Runacres was also accompanied by a female prison officer or "chaperone" outside the cell who watched on during the assessment.

A male prison officer outside the cell turned away and faced the door at times, lending additional credence to the theory Dr Runacres indeed properly examined Ms Nelson, Mr Winneke said.

Coroner Simon McGregor's finding that Dr Runacres failed to perform a "very fundamental and simple series of examinations" on Ms Nelson implied he was incompetent, the barrister said.

In an added "sting", the suggestion Dr Runacres falsified records about the examinations was "extremely grave" and called his fitness to be a doctor into question, Mr Winneke said.

"His Honour had an obligation in carrying out his function and making findings … to consider all relevant evidence and to weigh the evidence," the barrister told the Supreme Court of Victoria on Tuesday.

"What possible explanation would there be for him to falsify a record?"

The coroner also implied Dr Runacres set in motion a chain of events of further inadequate care, ultimately leading to Ms Nelson's death, Mr Winneke said.

Barrister Stella Gold - acting for Ms Nelson's partner Uncle Percy Lovett and mother Aunty Donna Nelson - said the court couldn't reconcile Dr Runacres' own evidence he would never touch a female patient without a female nurse present.

Mr Lovett and Aunty Donna were permitted to join the appeal proceedings on Tuesday.

"(The appeal argument holds) together in a superficial sense, but really it requires cherry picking of the evidence," Ms Gold said.

The barrister maintained Dr Runacres' records were deliberately fraudulent and said the coroner rightly made findings against him, noting Mr McGregor described the doctor's evidence as "self-serving" and "implausible" at times.

Ms Gold urged the court to stand by the coroner's findings.

"Every witness other than Dr Runacres recalled Veronica"," she said.

Ms Nelson, who was suffering severe opioid withdrawal, was found dead in a prison cell at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre about 36 hours after she met with Dr Runacres on January 2, 2020.

She begged for help 49 times in the hours before her death.

Mr McGregor called for sweeping changes to Victoria's justice system after a five-week inquest into Ms Nelson's death.

The civil trial before Justice Michelle Quigley continues.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

Cassandra Morgan - AAP


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