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What Duty Is Owed To Patients By Non-Medical Hospital Staff ?

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What duty is owed To patients by non-medical hospital staff? Tilly Bailey & Irvine Law Firm's North East legal experts in personal injury and medical negligence explain....

There is no doubt that the NHS is under a great deal of pressure. Accident and Emergency Departments all over the country handle large volumes of injured patients every day and they are of course under a duty to prioritise the needs of those people. It is estimated that around 450,000 people visit A&E Departments in England every week.

But how far does that duty extend? 

Do non-medical staff such as receptionists owe the same duty as say a nurse or a doctor?

According to the Court of Appeal recently, they do not. Even if a patient relies on information provided to them by a receptionist, it does not necessarily mean that they will be legally liable.

The case in question related to a Mr Darnley who was assaulted in 2015. He went to the Accident and Emergency Department at the Mayday Hospital in Croydon, Surrey, where he advised the receptionist that he had been assaulted and hit over the head. She told him that there would be a four to five hour wait before he was seen. Seemingly her attitude was unhelpful and offhand. Mr Darnley informed the receptionist that he felt very unwell, and that he may collapse. She said that if he did collapse he would be treated as an emergency. She did not inform Mr Darnley that he would in fact be seen by a triage nurse within half an hour. Consequently Mr Darnley stayed in the department for 19 minutes and then left. The triage nurse did come for him but by that time he had left.

Unfortunately Mr Darnley’s condition worsened dramatically and he had to be returned to the A&E Department by ambulance. He had suffered a bleed to the brain and by that time it was too late to treat some of his injuries such that he was left with long term disabilities arising out of the head injury.

Mr Darnley brought a claim against the NHS Trust on the basis that he had relied upon the information provided by the receptionist that he would not be seen for four or five hours. Had he known that he would have been seen by the triage nurse within 30 minutes he would have stayed.

The Trial Judge had dismissed Mr Darnley’s claim, stating that the Trust’s duties did not extend to the receptionist providing accurate information about waiting times. Mr Darnley’s appeal was heard by the Court of Appeal last month. Two of the three Judges sitting in the Court of Appeal agreed with the Trial Judge. One of the Judges felt that the NHS Trust was in breach of its duty to Mr Darnley and that breach had caused his injury, but a majority of the three Judges is needed in the Court of Appeal, and so Mr Darnley’s claim was unsuccessful. 

However, it is not always the case that non-medical or clerical staff will not be held liable for their errors. In an earlier case in 2001, Tracy Kent suffered an asthma attack. Due to a clerical error in prioritising the patient, the ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive by which time Ms Kent suffered respiratory arrest. That case was also dismissed initially by the Trial Judge, but the Court of Appeal found in Ms Kent’s favour and she was awarded damages.

Arguably the decision against Mr Darnley was harsh given that his injuries were sustained when he relied upon information given to him by the hospital’s receptionist.

However, the position is not entirely straightforward and if you believe that you have suffered injury through the negligence of any NHS or emergency service personnel you should seek expert professional advice from one of our clinical negligence team by calling 0333 444 4422.