This case concerns an appeal by Michael Darnley to the Supreme Court against the dismissal of his negligence claim.
Mr Darnley received a head injury resulting from an assault. After arriving at the Trust’s Mayday Hospital in Croydon he explained his symptoms to the receptionist. The receptionist informed him that it would be 4-5 hours before he could be seen. However that information was incorrect and in fact he would have been seen within 30 minutes of his arrival by a triage nurse.
Mr Darnley was feeling very unwell and he left the hospital 19 minutes after his arrival. Not long after he left the triage nurse announced he could be seen but it was too late. Unfortunately his condition rapidly deteriorated and his family phoned for an ambulance that evening. On admission the Trust gave him a CT scan which confirmed the presence of an extra dural haematoma. He was transferred to the neurosurgical unit at St George’s, Tooting, but it was too late to stop the development of permanent brain damage. As a result the claimant has been left with a severe left hemiplegia and long-term disabilities.
Both the Judge at first instance and the Court of Appeal found for the Trust on the issue of liability. The Supreme Court has disagreed and allowed the appeal.
The Supreme Court considered that the inferior courts had confused or conflated the issue about whether a duty of care existed with the issue of whether that duty had been breached. The trial judge found that there was no duty on the receptionist to guard against such harm adding that it would be unreasonable to impose such a duty on the Trust. The Supreme Court fundamentally disagreed with this premise.
The Supreme Court stated that the case has not created new law and there already exists a duty of care between a hospital and patient. It is a long established principle that once a patient is “booked in” to a casualty department a duty of care arises. By virtue of vicarious liability the receptionist at the Mayday Hospital owed Mr Darnley a common law duty of care which involved giving reasonably accurate information regarding waiting times.
The duty of care clearly encapsulates the duty not to give false of misleading information that might cause such injury. It was negligent for the receptionist to tell Mr Darnley that he would not be seen for between 4 to 5 hours when the accurate information was that he could reasonably expect the triage nurse to see him within 30 minutes.
The duty of care owed by the Trust is to be viewed in a holistic manner and so it is inappropriate to distinguish between medical and non-medical staff.
It would be appropriate to differentiate between clinical and non-clinical staff when determining the standard of care in terms of ascertaining whether the duty had been breached. However such differentiation is irrelevant when deciding whether the duty of care exists in the first place. By way of example Lord Lloyd-Jones referred to the case of Kent v Griffiths  QB 36 where the London Ambulance Service was found liable in negligence for its delay in responding to an emergency call which resulted in the claimant suffering brain damage.
Are there implications for Hospital Trusts?
The NHS should be concerned that their staff are well trained as untrained staff could result in negligence claims of a similar nature, depleting valuable resources and further compromising patient care.
One likely and wise outcome from this case would be for healthcare providers to provide sensible guidance to their first line reception staff, to ensure that patients are not given incorrect or misleading information.