In the recent case of Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 151 the Court of Appeal considered whether hospital receptionists owed a duty of care to patients when giving them information about waiting times.
The Claimant, Mr Darnley, arrived in Accident & Emergency (A & E) with a head injury he had sustained as the result of an assault. The Defendant, Croydon Health Services NHS Trust, operated a system commonly used in NHS trusts where a receptionist would take the patients details and the patient would then be assessed within 30 minutes by a triage nurse who would decide the next steps (with urgent cases being prioritised).
Once the Claimant had given his details to the receptionist, he was told that the wait would be up to four hours before he would be seen. The receptionist failed to tell him that he would be assessed by a triage nurse within 30 minutes and the waiting time was in relation to obtaining treatment.
The Claimant sat in the waiting area for 19 minutes but was in pain and decided to leave the hospital. A short time later, the triage nurse called the Claimant from the waiting area, but he had gone without informing anyone.
At home, the Claimant’s condition got worse and he had to be brought back into hospital in an ambulance. The Claimant was found to have an extradural haematoma and suffered partial paralysis and long-term disabilities.
The Claimant brought a claim against the NHS Trust for breaching their duty to provide accurate information about waiting times, on the basis that the Claimant would have waited had he known a triage nurse would see him within 30 minutes.
The Claimants case failed by a majority vote, with the Lord Justice’s upholding the trial Judge’s decision on the basis that it would not be “fair, just and reasonable” to impose such a duty on non-clinically qualified staff. The Court of Appeal held that it was not part of a receptionist’s duty to provide information about waiting times, nor were they in breach of duty for providing inaccurate information.
The Court of Appeal went further in their judgment to say it was reasonably foreseeable that a person who believes it may be a four hour wait before being seen may decide to leave but -
“There comes a point where people must accept their own actions. The claimant was told to wait. He chose not to do so. Without informing anyone of his decision, he simply walked out of the hospital.”
The Claimant had sought to rely on Kent v Griffiths  QB 36 and Michael v Chief Constable of South Wales Police  UKSC 2 in which the emergency telephone operator for the ambulance service provided incorrect information regarding how long the ambulance would take to arrive. In these cases, it was held that the ambulance service held a duty of care giving rise to liability for personal injury because they have a duty of reasonable care to pass on correct information as patients waiting need to decide whether to stay where they are or arrange their own transport to a hospital.
However, these cases were distinguished on the basis an A & E receptionists function is different to a telephonist in the ambulance service. An A & E receptionists role is to record details of patients arriving, tell them where to wait and pass on the relevant details to the triage nurse and it is not their duty to give any wider advice or information to patients.
Lord Justice Sales said that information about waiting times is -
“provided as a matter of courtesy and out of a general spirit of trying to be helpful to the public… its provision is not subject to a duty of care in law”.
In this case, the Court decided that the duty of care within a hospital did not extend to hospital receptionists, however, if you think you may have a clinical negligence claim in relation to treatment by a doctor or other healthcare professional, we would be more than happy to speak to you. Our team is based in Bedford and we can be contacted on 01234 270600.