Should a hospital receptionist owe a duty of care to patients?

In the case of Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust a recent application was heard by the Court of Appeal as to whether hospital receptionists owed patients a general duty of care to accurately advise them as to the waiting times of A&E departments.

The facts of the case are that Mr Darnley had been assaulted and hit over the head. His friend drove him to A&E where he was told by the receptionist that he would have to wait five to six hours before he could be seen despite the fact that cases such as his are typically seen within 30 minute so that the seriousness of the injuries can be assessed. After 19 minutes Mr Darnley left the hospital. He was later found to have suffered an extradural haematoma and sustained long-term disabilities as a result.

The case was originally heard back in 2015 when the High Courts decided that the receptionist did not owe Mr Darnley a duty of care so the trust could not be held vicariously liable. This is against the background of NICE Guidance which states that head injury patients should be seen within 15 minutes of arriving at A&E so that an assessment can be made as to the severity of the patient’s injuries. Following evidence of two experts it was determined that in practice it was extremely difficult for a patient to be seen within 15 minutes and that a 30 minute waiting time was reasonable.

Whilst it was reasonably foreseeable that a patient would rely upon advised waiting times when deciding whether or not to stay in the A&E waiting area, receptionists in A&E departments were not typically expected to safeguard patients against potential harm caused by any potential waiting times. This is by virtue of the fact that the primary function of a receptionist was to complete registration forms with their duty being to complete this task accurately ensuring patients were seen by the correct departments. It was decided that the provision of information relating to waiting times were provided as a mere courtesy and, that it would be unjust to impose such an unusually high duty on receptionists in circumstances where A&E departments would just advise their staff not to provide any information on expected waiting times.

The appeal was heard by Lord Justice Jackson who echoed the concerns of the trial judge and also that a claim such as this would open a ‘floodgate’ for claims of a similar nature. He further commented that the scope for the duty of care could not be extended in circumstances where a patient has left hospital grounds without informing staff of his departure.