Should it be fair for Courts to impose a duty of care on civilian, non-medically trained receptionists? Should the same receptionists be accountable for the provision of inaccurate information? Should a patient who was wrongly informed by the said receptionist have the right to bring a claim against a Hospital Trust?

Facts of the Case

Mr Darnley sustained a head injury from an assault and was driven by a friend to the nearby A&E Department. Upon arrival, a civilian receptionist in the waiting area informed Mr Darnley that he would have to wait for 4-5 hours before being seen – this estimation was in fact incorrect.

The receptionist should have informed Mr Darnley that he would be assessed by a triage nurse within 30 minutes of arrival. It was likely (due to the extent of Mr Darnley’s injuries) he would have been given expedited treatment and not had to wait for the 4-5 hours estimated.

Mr Darnley, who was in pain, took a seat in the A&E waiting area for 19 minutes before leaving and returning to his home address. Once home, Mr Darnley’s condition deteriorated and was brought back to the hospital by ambulance.

As a result of the delay in treatment, Mr Darnley was found to have sustained an extradural haematoma and suffered partial paralysis with long term disabilities.

Mr Darnley brought a claim against the NHS Trust, contending that the failure of the receptionist to provide accurate information was a breach of duty.

The Decision

The Court of Appeal upheld the original decision and found that the NHS Trust was not liable. Lord Justices Jackson and Sales claimed that an imposition of such a duty would be unreasonable and would make the role of a civilian receptionist working for the NHS very difficult.

The Claimant relied on the case of Kent v Griffiths [2001] in which there was a similar ‘delay’ with an ambulance arriving late. In Kent v Griffiths [2001], it was held that it would be foreseeable that an unjustified delay would result in further injury following the acceptance of the ambulance service to attend the Claimant. Yet the Court did not accept the Kent/Darnley parallel.

Ultimately, the Court decided (as per the test laid out in Caparo v Dickman [1990]) that it would not be ‘fair, just and reasonable’ to impose a duty of care on the receptionist. The judges summed up by concluding that Mr Darnley was aware of the pain, knew that he would be seen, took the decision to leave and must ‘take responsibility for the consequence of that decision’.

Ramifications for Claimants

It is arguable that this case does not provide a necessary remedy for a patient who has to endure adverse consequences for the rest of their lives as a result of an inaccurate statement. Moreover, it is surely unfair that a patient, who has placed substantial, life-changing reliance on comments made by a civilian receptionist, should walk away with no recompense.

Nonetheless, the line drawn between the Kent decision and Darnley is conceivably thinner than the upholding judges may be prepared to admit. In this respect, many will point to the argument made by the dissenting judge McCombe LJ, in that patients who are waiting for an ambulance may need to decide whether to stay and wait or arrange alternative transportation.

What is certain, for the time being at least, is that the Court of Appeal decision is noteworthy with regards to public policy. The judges have undoubtedly stemmed a prospective area of litigation concerning the perceived negligence on the part of civilian receptionists to provide correct information. The facts of future cases may be more favourable to prospective litigants, as Mr Darnley’s decision to leave A&E was the crucial point to the failure of his claim.

If you would like to discuss the matters raised in this article, please contact the Personal Injury team on +44 (0) 203 814 2020.