17 October 2018

Supreme Court ruling on major medical negligence case announced

In the UK, millions of people are successfully treated by medical professionals each year. However, sometimes things can go wrong and injuries can be sustained that could have been avoided.

We were reminded of how badly things can go wrong and how complicated medical negligence can be this month, when a landmark case was concluded.

In 2010, Michael Darnley suffered a personal injury when he was assaulted by a stranger in South London. Attending the A&E department in Croydon, he informed a receptionist of his painful head injury and requested urgent attention.

“The witness evidence given at trial confirmed that the Hospital’s usual practice for head injuries like these would be a triage appointment within 30 minutes of arrival,” explains Liam May, one of Wilkin Chapman’s Medical Negligence specialists. “According to the specifics of Mr Darnley’s case, he was told by the receptionist that it would take up to four-five hours to be seen.”

Mr Darnley decided to leave the hospital, but when his symptoms worsened later that day, he returned to A&E by ambulance. A CT scan revealed extensive bleeding that required immediate neuro-surgery, but it was too late to prevent serious injury and he suffered permanent brain damage resulting in very disabling injuries.

“When the case first came to trial before the High Court, it was found that had Mr Darnley stayed at Hospital and suffered his collapse there, he would have been treated and made a very near full recovery,” continues Liam.

Mr Darnley’s pleaded case included allegations of misleading information given by the reception staff, plus a failure to assess for priority triage. However, the High Court held that “It would not be fair, just and reasonable to impose liability” due to the failure by the reception staff to inform Mr Darnley of the likely waiting time to be seen.

After having his first appeal dismissed, Mr Darnley once again appealed the decision, and on the 10th October 2018, the Supreme Court held that his case “falls squarely within an established category of duty of care”; that as soon as a patient attends the A&E department and provides information to the receptionist, they are accepted into the system and the long-established duty “to take reasonable care not to cause physical injury to the patient” arises.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that a receptionist working in a busy and pressurised A&E department cannot be expected to give accurate information on waiting times, however they held that they can be expected to take reasonable care not to provide misleading information.

As the High Court ruled, had Mr Darnley been informed that he would have been seen within 30 minutes, he would have stayed in the waiting area. This ruling could have a major impact on future medical negligence cases, particularly in the primary care sector involving GP practices.

“You have to look at the circumstances of each case,” Liam explains. “In the A&E sector you’re dealing with medical emergencies but GP practices operate in different ways. When patients see a GP, the receptionists are commonly the first port of call and patients are advised as to when they can be seen by a GP or nurse, whether it’s that day or sometime in the future.”

At this stage, it is unknown as to how the Darnley case will be applied in future cases and whether the Judgment will have wider implications.

If you need advice about medical negligence, our specialist lawyers are here to guide you through your available options. Get in touch with our team to see how we can help.

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