Written by Jennifer Hales, solicitor in the medical negligence department at Fletchers
Michael Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust: Organisations can now be held liable for the actions of non-medical staff, if misleading information is provided which causes injury.
In May 2010 Mr Darnley attended the A&E department of Croydon Health Services NHS Trust with a head injury. he should have been told that he would be assessed by a triage Nurse within 30 minutes. Mr Darnley was however incorrectly told by reception staff that he could wait up to 4-5 hours for medical treatment.
On the basis of the information provided by the reception staff, Mr Darnley decided to go home after 19 minutes.
At home, Mr Darnley’s condition deteriorated and by the time he had been readmitted to hospital he had suffered permanent brain damage.
It was alleged by Mr Darnley that if the reception staff had provided the correct advice (assessment within 30 minutes) he would have remained in hospital and received treatment thus avoiding permanent brain damage.
The High Court and Court of Appeal initially dismissed Mr Darnley’s claim on the basis that the Hospital Trust and reception staff did not have a duty of care to provide Mr Darnley with the appropriate waiting times.
Lord Justice Jackson in particular argued that to hold the reception staff responsible would open the floodgates and that “Litigation about who said what to whom in A&E waiting rooms could become a fertile area for claimants and their representatives.”
NHS Resolution also commented that although this was a ‘sad case’ the ‘novel’ claim was resisted in the interests of the NHS, and that ‘opening up receptionists to negligence claims of this kind would have had very serious consequences’.
However, the recent ruling by the Supreme Court has overturned the previous judgements. The Supreme Court set out that it is well established that healthcare providers owe a duty of care to their patients and this includes the actions of Reception staff. There is no distinction between medical and non-medical staff.
The effect of the judgement is that organisations can now be held liable for the actions of non-medical staff. In the case of Mr Darnley, the misleading information provided regarding A&E waiting times caused him to suffer brain damage and long-term disability (for which Croydon Health Services NHS Trust will now have to compensate him).
This decision has implications for all healthcare providers, including GP, Dental receptionists, A&E and Ambulance services where employed non-medical staff provide advice on which patients rely.
Organisations must now take steps to ensure that non-medical staff understand the implications of their actions and that they have a duty to provide reasonably accurate and non-misleading advice.