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Court of Appeal confirms that hospital receptionists do not owe a duty of care to patients

Posted: 03/04/2017

In December we reported on Darnley v Croydon Health Services in which a court concluded that a receptionist did not owe a duty of care to patients to provide accurate information about waiting times. This was a case where an A&E receptionist gave the claimant the wrong information about his likely waiting time, resulting in him leaving the hospital despite having sustained a head injury because he felt so unwell and could not face waiting the four to five hours he had been told were likely before he was seen. He later deteriorated at home and sustained long-term brain damage.

The court accepted that the advice was wrong and that it was foreseeable that the claimant would rely on that wrong information and act as he did. However, it concluded that this was not clinical information and so there was no duty of care owed by the receptionist to give the correct information.

The claimant appealed but in a judgment handed down recently, the Court of Appeal has rejected the appeal. The court ruled, by a majority of two to one, that the receptionist could not be blamed, and that allowing the appeal would open the floodgates to similar claims against hospital receptionists. Lord Justice Jackson gave the lead judgment and said that it was not ‘fair, just and reasonable’ to impose a duty of care on A&E receptionists to give accurate information. He concluded that neither the receptionist, nor the trust, were under a duty to correctly inform the claimant about likely waiting times.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches LLP, comments: “One cannot help having sympathy for the claimant given his condition. The advice given was clearly wrong. However, to impose a duty on A&E receptionists to give accurate information and work on the basis that hospital patients will use that information to make decisions about their medical care does seem to be a step too far. The reality is that the obligation on the hospital is for medical staff to make the correct medical assessment of the urgency with which each patient needs to be seen. If they fail in that assessment, then liability should rest with them for the damage caused.

“Patients must rely on the fact that they will be seen in order of priority and need. Should they choose not to wait, they must take responsibility for that decision. The case does nonetheless highlight the need for receptionists to be alert to the fact that people may leave an A&E department if told there is a long wait. They should have some awareness of the patients who may be compromised if they are given the wrong information and that they should be advised to stay and be reveiewed.”

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