Sacriston GP died in 'deliberate' crash two hours after being told he faced NHS investigation

Dr Hayden Ellis was found dead at the wheel of his car after he crashed into a tree in Northumberland. Credit: NCJ Media

A GP died in a "deliberate" car crash less than two hours after being told he faced an NHS investigation, an inquest has found.

Dr Hayden Ellis, who was a longstanding doctor at Sacriston Medical Centre in County Durham, was confronted with "serious and sensitive" allegations relating to a complaint which had been made against him on 7 September 2022.

That morning, after "owning up" to colleagues, Dr Ellis left the practice and drove to his home in Stocksfield, Northumberland.

Shortly afterwards, at around 10am, the 43-year-old was found dead at the wheel of his car on the B6309, having crashed into a tree.

Northumberland senior coroner Andrew Hetherington found at an inquest on Tuesday that Dr Ellis had driven into the tree deliberately, but that his intent had been "unclear".

The inquest heard Dr Ellis had not been wearing his seatbelt, nor made any effort to avoid hitting a tree at speed.

Pathologist Dr Clive Bloxham told Northumberland Coroner's Court how there was no sign of any medical issue which could have caused him to become incapacitated, while a police officer said "no defects" had been found either in Dr Ellis's vehicle or on the road itself which might have led to the collision. There were no sign of drugs or alcohol in his system.

That morning Dr Ellis had been told by fellow partners at the GP practice Dr Jonathan Holmes and Martin Bell that he had been subject to a serious complaint, and that NHS England and safeguarding authorities had been informed.

At the inquest, Dr Holmes and Mr Bell said Dr Ellis had been calm when told this news.

Dr Holmes said Dr Ellis had then "surprised me" by "owning up" and admitting the complaint was true. The nature of this complaint was not discussed at the inquest into Dr Ellis's death.

At the inquest, Dr Holmes paid tribute to his former colleague, saying: "He was an incredible mind. If there was any clinical question you had, Hayden would have the answer. He was always approachable if ever you had an issue with a patient."

Dr Holmes confirmed that a meeting at 8am was the first time Dr Ellis had been made aware of a complaint against him.

Asked how he approached discussing the complaint, Dr Holmes said: "I approached it as I would if breaking bad news to a patient. I gave him a warning shot that what I was about to discuss with him was a very serious and sensitive matter. And I said a serious allegation has come forward in relation to yourself and your practice."

Asked what Dr Ellis's reaction had been like, Dr Holmes added: "He was collected and calm, very quiet. He started to take things in in a slow, very measured way. We suggested he probably wouldn't be safe to see patients We advised him to contact his defence union and take some legal advice.

"I believe at that point he took me by surprise and he owned up to the allegation. He thanked us for how we had handled the situation and apologised for the situation he had put us in as a partnership."

Shortly afterwards, Dr Holmes and non-clinical practice partner Mr Bell advised Dr Ellis to take at least the rest of the week off and that an investigation would take place. They both told the inquest they had checked Dr Ellis felt okay to drive home and been reassured this was the case.

Northumbria Police crash investigator Pc Steve Malt took the coroner through his own investigations into what happened on that September morning. He explained that from CCTV and phone records, officers knew Dr Ellis left the surgery at around 8.35am, and his phone connected to his home wi-fi at 9:17am.

Police attended the scene of the crash in Northumberland. Credit: NCJ Media

However when he sent a Whatsapp message to his wife - suggesting he had felt unwell and left work, but would take some painkillers and be alright to pick up their children later that day - he was back, according to phone records, on the B6309.

Shortly after sending the message to his wife, Dr Ellis's phone disconnected from his car's Bluetooth. This is understood to be when the crash happened, heading north on the road near to Squirrel's Leap in the Stocksfield area.

Dr Ellis's family - represented by his wife Dr Nathalie Ellis, also a GP - do not believe he had ever suffered from mental health difficulties or experienced suicidal ideation, and there was no note or message left.

Dr Ellis's wife told the coroner the family felt it was not certain that Dr Ellis had been conscious at the time of the crash or if there was any obstacle, for instance an animal, in the road that may have caused him to swerve.

Senior coroner Andrew Hetherington gave a narrative verdict as to Dr Ellis's death. In delivering his verdict he said he found it unlikely that Dr Ellis was unconscious at the time of his death and: "I am satisfied that the change of direction was deliberate."

However the coroner said he was not satisfied that the criteria for ruling this suicide had been met. His narrative verdict was: "Hayden died as a result of his own deliberate action in a road traffic collision which led to multiple injuries and immediate death - although the question of his intent remains unclear."

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