Mental health trust pays damages over man’s death
A mental health trust has paid out damages over the case of a man with bipolar disorder and a history of lighting fires who was trapped in a blaze at his cluttered tower block flat.
Bob Crane, 61, a well-known character in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, had been cooking on open fires at his seventh-floor council flat for more than a year because his electricity had been cut off.
Concerns were repeatedly raised that Crane was putting himself and his neighbours at risk, but he died of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning after his cooking fire got out of control.
Crane’s son, Alex, told the Guardian his father was treated as an antisocial nuisance rather than a vulnerable man with a serious untreated mental illness, and criticised agencies involved for failing to work in a joined-up way to keep him and other residents safe.
He said: “No one was prepared to take the lead. There was no coordinated effort. It was all very haphazard though it should have been obvious there was a serious danger to life. Too many heads were buried in the sand. It was all but inevitable that my dad would die in a fire, and it is a miracle that no one else was killed.”
Alex, an English teacher now living in Vietnam, said he had tried to look after his father. He said: “My dad and I were very close. I looked after him for my whole adult life until the strain became too much and I placed my trust in the Avon and Wiltshire mental health partnership (AWP) and Bristol city council to keep him safe.”
Crane was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985 and was detained under the Mental Health Act on a number of occasions. In 2012 Crane stopped taking medication and, because he refused to acknowledge he was ill and rejected help, was discharged from mental health services.
In May 2013 the electricity supply to Crane’s flat was cut off and he began to light fires to cook and heat water. Firefighters were called four times to reports of smoke and flames at the flat.
Crane was served with an injunction prohibiting him from lighting fires in or near his tower block, Carolina House, in June 2014. He did not stop and the following month a nurse who had visited wrote that his flat was a “major fire hazard” and if there was a blaze there was a “high risk” he and his neighbours would not be able to escape.
Crane died following a fire in September 2014. A report from the fire and rescue service concluded: “The most probable cause was the deliberate ignition of flammable materials such as paper or wood for the purpose of cooking or heating water.”
An inquest ruled that Crane’s death was accidental and a serious case review that investigated how agencies including AWP and the city council handled the case raised concerns about joint working practices. It said there had been a failure to understand that Crane’s antisocial behaviour was a symptom of the deterioration of his mental health.
Alex Crane brought a claim for damages against AWP and the city council, arguing they had violated his father’s right to life under the European convention on human rights. While not accepting that it was liable or negligent, AWP settled and the claim against the council has been discontinued.
Alex Crane said his father was an eccentric but well-liked character in Stokes Croft, a neighbourhood famed across the globe for its street art. Three murals appeared in the neighbourhood dedicated to Crane following the fatal fire.
He said: “My dad was a very interesting character, outgoing and sociable. He made everyone laugh and he had lots of friends. He also had an anti-authoritarian streak, which sometimes ended in confrontation with people he perceived to be the establishment.”
Alex Crane said he did not believe professionals understood his father’s illness. “He always presented as articulate even when he was completely out of touch with reality.”
He also expressed concern at the funding available for mental health services. “There is a shameful lack of resources. I’ve been involved in this [his father’s case] since I was 13 and I’ve seen mental health services get considerably worse. The availability of beds, of time with professionals has gone down and down.
“Ultimately, my dad’s case illustrates the dangers of expecting under-funded, under-trained and under-staffed public services to care for mentally ill people in the community.”
Alex Crane’s lawyer, Gus Silverman, of solicitors Irwin Mitchell, said more should have been done to help Crane. He said: “It is extremely concerning that Bob was allowed to continue living on the seventh floor of a high-rise block when the authorities knew that he was regularly lighting fires, living without electricity and suffering from a serious untreated mental illness.”
A spokesperson for AWP said: “Although the trust was not liable or negligent we made a financial settlement. This was a complex issue involving multiple agencies and after taking legal advice and considering a range of factors we determined that a payment with no admission of liability would be the best outcome for the taxpayer.
A Bristol city council spokesperson said: “We were extremely saddened and concerned about Mr Crane’s death. This tragic incident resulted in a review of our practices and we worked closely with the Bristol safeguarding adults board to help develop a new policy around self-neglect, which all partners now follow.”