Siobhan Cattigan: SRU says court may be ‘most appropriate’ place to look into death

Siobhan Cattigan's family launch head injury case against Scottish Rugby & World Rugby

Siobhan Cattigan made 19 appearances for Scotland between 2018 and 2021

The Scottish Rugby Union says it will not sanction an external inquiry into the death of international player Siobhan Cattigan.

Cattigan, who won 19 caps between 2018 and 2021, died in November aged 26.

Her parents, Neil and Morven, have said rugby-related brain injuries caused deterioration in their daughter’s condition and led to her death.

But the union said on Saturday that court may be “the most appropriate” place to discover the facts.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, the family, who have launched legal action against the SRU and World Rugby, claim they noticed a significant and alarming change in their daughter’s personality following brain injuries suffered while representing Scotland.

At their annual meeting on Saturday, Scottish Rugby officials spoke of the “heartbreaking” story and “extremely disturbing” account from the Cattigans.

The governing body says it is engaging in an internal fact discovery process but said that, because of impending legal action from the family against the SRU, there was a limit to what it could say publicly.

Chairman John Jeffrey remarked that he was “comfortable with the actions of our people”, while adding a hope that “in time, the full story will come out.”

After the main AGM, chief executive Mark Dodson (MD), Jeffrey (JJ) and James Robson (JR), the veteran medic who has worked in rugby for close to four decades, sat down with the media for questions.

Q: Since the Cattigan family spoke, has anybody from the SRU been in touch with them?

MD: There have been various people been in touch with the family.

Q: Since the article appeared?

MD: Within the time lines we are trying to establish those facts now.

Q: Surely you’ll know if you have been in touch with the family over the last three or four weeks…

MD: There have been a number of people in touch with the Cattigan family. I am trying to establish that timeline.

Q: Is there a lot to establish? Have you personally phoned them?

MD: We are trying to establish the facts that sit behind what happened.

Q: Has anybody from the SRU contacted the family since the article appeared?

MD: Since the article appeared? Sorry, eh, no.

Q: Why not?

MD: We reached out to the Cattigan family directly after the incident happened in various ways and we never heard anything from the Cattigan family then. Then they asked for their privacy to be respected, so we are doing that. What we are doing in the interim period is establishing the facts.

Q: You can see how it looks when the SRU say they are not going to grant an external review. Do you accept that the optics of this are horrendous?

MD: The optics of this are not what we are trying to establish. We are trying to establish the facts. There is one part of the story that has been out there. What we are trying to establish is the whole story. There are things we cannot go into for reasons around GMC (General Medical Council) guidelines and patient confidentiality. We just can’t go there.

Q: Surely an external inquiry is needed. A person coming in from the outside to examine things?

MD: No, because they will have the same issues we have around patient confidentially and GMC guidelines. It is complex. JJ (John Jeffrey) mentioned in his speech that this is a really complex and difficult issue. It needs a thorough piece of work to establish that.

Q: The likelihood is that this will end up in court, isn’t it?

MD: This may end up in court proceedings and this may be the most appropriate place for this to end up.

Q: You are confident you can stand up and offer a robust defence?

MD: That’s what I’m trying to establish with facts. At the moment, I can’t tell you. There are records we need to examine and have a look at. Before I establish the facts, I can’t determine whether we’re confident. It’s maybe the courts where the information actually emerges.

Q: Did anybody in the SRU – council or board – recommend an external review ?

JJ: Not to me, no. Council met last Monday night and I explained the process. It is a very simple thing to say, ‘Let’s go do an external review,’ but you have to remember we have our people here who need to be protected as well. To suddenly go the way of an external review, you are talking two years. You are getting other people who are affected and who are hanging on the line for two years, which we are not doing. We are comfortable, I am very comfortable, with the actions of our staff and our people.

Q: How can you be comfortable if you don’t know what the facts are?

JJ: I said earlier our medical staff have been at the forefront of brain health over the years. Our staff are held to that level and I am comfortable they have executed those to the best of their ability.

Q: So the allegations in the Sunday Times are wrong?

JJ: There are bits of it we do not recognise. I am not going into the individual bits until we have all the facts.

Q: Have legal papers been served in the Cattigan case?

MD: We’ve been sent impending notice of an action against us, which is normal in this kind of area. It alleges certain things around Siobhan’s care. With the two guys in the Times yesterday (former Glasgow player John Shaw and former Scotland international Kieran Low announced their intention to take legal action against the SRU) we’re not sure for undetected brain injuries suffered in games.

Q: In the wider picture, is there a fear that (with all this potential litigation around brain injury) rugby will be legislated out of existence financially or otherwise?

MD: That’s not for me to say and that’s why we are waiting for medical opinion. There is a tragedy when you see any human being going through what’s been alleged in the wider case, the Siobhan Cattigan case and with Kieran and John as well. What we’re trying to do is not pre-judge anything, look at the facts. Whether that is damaging or deleterious to rugby in the longer-term, I don’t know and can’t say yet. All we can say is that we have to deal with what we know and what we knew at the time.

The legal implication of this makes it very difficult. We don’t know what we are facing yet in terms of class action or individual action and we are taking advice from our lawyers, who advise us to approach this in a certain way, because we are trying to protect the people involved in this as litigants and our own people where we have a duty of care to as well. Then we’ve got to look at the alleged incidents, what happened to these people when they were in the care of Scottish Rugby. I’d love to be able to explain to you how complex this is and I’m not trying to put any fog out there, but if you were in our shoes, looking at the delicacy that surrounds this, and what we feel already for the Cattigan family and anyone who has been involved in this, it’s not something we will take lightly. We’re taking our time and doing this in the most thorough way possible so we can give the most complete picture.

Q: The allegation from the Cattigans, the impression of a lack of basic decency from the SRU around this. Why is that?

MD: That’s part of the issue we have – we don’t recognise parts of that [Sunday Times article]. We don’t agree and we don’t recognise. We are not going to comment on these things piecemeal, we are going to comment holistically on it.

Q: Bryan Easson (Scotland women’s team coach) has denied that he did anything wrong in his duty of care to Siobhan. Do you have confidence in him?

MD: I have confidence in Bryan as a coach. As far as allegations are made against Bryan, we will look into those and establish facts as time goes past. Bryan is leading the team to the World Cup finals and has two international matches to concentrate on in the near future.

Q: There are an awful lot of allegations about the care – or lack of care – Siobhan may have received. The family have said they feel let down and that, had their daughter been referred to a neurologist, she’d be alive today. What’s your response to that? They also say that there has been an absence of empathy from the SRU.

JJ: We are not going to come back piecemeal to say this is right and that was wrong. Hopefully, in time, the full story will come out.

MD: We’ve got a grieving family, totally traumatised by what has happened. There have been allegations made about the behaviour of the union and individuals. We responded immediately to the Cattigan family with our commiserations and gave them the opportunity to contact us. That wasn’t taken up.

Q: Why not pick up the phone and talk to them after they spoke a few weeks back?

JJ: That support was offered to them at the time, when Siobhan died, and they didn’t take that up. We were dealing through the uncle. Since then, they have written the article and have asked for their privacy to be protected.

Q: James, are you disappointed with the allegations thrown at your medical department?

JR: I’ve spent more than 40 years in healthcare, looking after people, and I’ve always said the care I give is the care that I would expect for my family. And I get incredibly upset at the thought that I haven’t done something I should have done. And that extends to my team.

We’ve been very lucky in Scotland, we are a very small country and we’ve got a very small group of medics and we work very closely together. And we’ve got some very experienced people who are striving – not just in rugby but in all aspects – to provide the best care for sportsmen and women.

Q: Do the accusations hurt? Do you recognise them, have you looked into them?

JR: From my point of view, I’m examining everything I can examine and, of course, GMC guidelines, legal precedent and even acts of parliament prevent us from sharing certain information, which can only be shared either in a court of law or at the behest of others, and at the moment I don’t have the behest of others.

Q: Is this your worst nightmare?

JR: The worst nightmare for me is failing in anybody’s care and if there is a failure then that is a true nightmare. If he [points to Mark Dodson] makes a mistake in selecting a coach and the coach makes a mistake in selecting the team the worst that can happen is that you might lose the game. If I make a mistake in prescribing for you, you could die. So people mustn’t underestimate the amount of pressure and care that goes into a medic’s brain.

I pride myself not in not making mistakes but in making as few mistakes as I can possibly make. We have a duty of candour. If you make a mistake, it’s your duty to go and say to that patient ‘I may have made a mistake, I’m really sorry’. I don’t know many other professions that have that duty.

About seven or eight years ago, somebody came to me when I was banging on about concussion and injury and they said: ‘Are you not frightened you’re scaring parents by talking so openly about injury in sport?’, and I said: ‘Parents and other people should be more scared if we are not talking about it’. So I continue to engage. I’ll never stop striving to make our game and sport as safe as possible. That’s the best I can do. At some point, I’ll retire and somebody else can take that on. Several people have said, given the publicity around it, should you not just walk away from sport? Lots of people could take my place, but there are perhaps very few who are experienced as I. So I have a duty to provide my experience to the next generation and to the care of the players.

Any loss of life, in fact any illness, is always distressing to me. I go on tour to Argentina for four-and-a-half weeks and I have sleepless nights every night when somebody’s got a sore throat because it might transpire into something else. People laugh at me and say you’re on holiday, but it’s incredibly stressful. I go home at the end of the day, or I come off my Zoom meetings at the end of the day, and I’ve got anxieties perpetuating in my brain because you can never be perfect, but you’ve got to strive to be as perfect as possible and in this case – or in any care – if we’ve let somebody down we need to learn that lesson and make it better for other people, but I can’t comment on the specifics of this case.

Q: Any timeline on the legal action against the SRU?

MD: We’re not controlling it. Even if the court case against us is set in action, we don’t control the timeline on that. The courts will describe the timeline.

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