Individual justice v social consequences

Posted: 4th April 2017

EmergencyJudges have the social consequences of their decisions well in mind and sometimes have to balance justice for individuals against the general public good. In one case that powerfully proved the point, the Court of Appeal ruled that hospital accident and emergency department (A&E) receptionists do not owe a legal duty to give patients accurate information concerning waiting times.

Mr Darnley attended the Mayday Hospital A&E with head injuries following an assault. The receptionist incorrectly told him that he would have to wait four to five hours before a medic would see him. He would in fact have been assessed by a triage nurse within half an hour. He decided not to wait and went home. Shortly afterwards Mr Darnley suffered a serious bleed on his brain and was taken back to the same hospital by ambulance. He had been left partially paralysed.

In seeking substantial compensation from the NHS trust that ran the hospital, Mr Darnley claimed that, had he been correctly advised by the receptionist, he would have stayed in A&E and undergone appropriate treatment that would have saved him from permanent injury. His claim was, however, rejected by a judge.

In dismissing his appeal by a majority, the Court noted that about 450,000 patients visit A&E departments weekly and they are not always havens of tranquility. NHS staff, including receptionists, work under pressure and, were the man’s claim to succeed, it might open the floodgates to a great deal of further litigation against the NHS.

There was also the risk that, under threat of being sued, NHS trusts might instruct receptionists to say nothing to patients apart from asking their details. That would hardly be in the public interest. The Court found that information concerning waiting times is given to patients by receptionists as a courtesy and it is not fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on the latter to ensure its accuracy.

In the particular case, the man had been told to wait by the receptionist but had only done so for 19 minutes before going home without informing anyone of his departure. In those circumstances, the Court noted that there comes a point when people must accept responsibility for their own actions.