As a consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Michael Darnley v Croydon Healthcare NHS Trust, receptionists in A & E will now have to be more careful about the information they give to patients regarding the availability of medical assistance.

Mr Darnley had attended Mayday A&E department in May 2010 and told the receptionist that he had been hit on the head in an assault and feared he had a head injury and wanted to be seen urgently. He told her that his head was hurting and he felt terrible. He was incorrectly told by her that he would have to wait for up to 4 to 5 hours to see a doctor. In fact, as the receptionist new, he should have been told that under the hospital’s head injury protocol he would be triaged by a nurse within 30 minutes and depending upon the findings of the triage nurse he may have to wait longer to see a doctor. Without that key piece of information Mr Darnley waited for 19 minutes and then left to go home to bed where he collapsed over an hour later due to the effects of a brain haemorrhage caused by the assault.

The Supreme Court said the duty of care which is owed by a hospital trust to a patient extends to non-medical as well as medical staff and the hospital will be responsible for any harm suffered by a patient if it is due to misleading information given by the receptionist if it likely that the misleading information would cause harm.

The Supreme Court rejected the notion that information provided to a patient by a receptionist was given purely as a matter of courtesy and that even if it was misleading the trust should not be responsible for any harm caused.

The Supreme Court also put an end to an argument that a patient must take responsibility for their actions if they leave an A&E department without telling the staff. The Supreme Court took the view that if a patient’s decision to leave is partly based on inaccurate or incomplete information provided by the receptionists then the trust is responsible for any harm that the patient suffers as a consequence of them leaving.

Comment by Deborah Blythe solicitor for Michael Darnley

This is the first litigated case of its kind in which compensation has been sought for injury which has been caused by receptionists giving misleading information in an A&E department. However the Supreme Court made it clear that this case should not be seen as an extension of the law of negligence but rather arising out of just novel facts

Despite fears expressed by hospital Trusts, this will not lead to a new layer of responsibility for clerical staff or a new layer of liability for the NHS.

The reception area of an A&E department is the first point of contact between the public and the hospital seeking medical assistance. The decision of the Supreme Court does not mean that reception staff should accurately state the precise time a patient would be seen medically qualified staff. They will be required to take reasonable care not to provide misleading information about the availability of medical assistance. The standard of care to apply is that of an averagely competent and well-informed person performing the function of a receptionist in a department providing emergency medical care.