Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust [2017] EWCA Civ 151 (23 March 2017)

On 17 May 2010 C presented himself at A & E department with a head injury. The receptionist told C to wait. She added that the claimant would be seen in up to 4 or 5 hours. C left after 19 minutes. Unfortunately the receptionist had not said, and C did not know, that a triage nurse would examine him within 30 minutes. (paragraph 59)

As a result of leaving hospital untreated, C suffered serious injury. When he later returned by ambulance, it was too late to prevent the development of permanent brain damage. (paragraph 60)

The trial judge dismissed C’s claim. He held that there was no duty to triage C within 19 minutes. He also held that the receptionist (or the defendant health trust acting by the receptionist) owed no tortious duty to C in respect of the information that she gave about waiting time. (paragraph 61)

C now appeals… I would dismiss this appeal. the judge was entitled to find that the nurses’ failure to triage the claimant within 19 minutes was not a breach of duty. C cannot succeed on the alternative basis of negligent misstatement by the receptionist. This is because (a) neither the receptionist nor the defendant health trust acting by the receptionist owed any duty to advise C about waiting times, alternatively (b) the damage which C suffered was outside the scope of any duty owed, alternatively (c) there was no causal link between any breach of duty and C’s injury. C was told to wait, but he chose to leave the hospital. (paragraph 62)

In my judgment, the fair, just and reasonable view is that such information is provided as a matter of courtesy and out of a general spirit of trying to be helpful to the public, as the judge held, and that its provision is not subject to a duty of care in law such that compensation must be paid if a mistake is made. Imposition of such a duty would be likely to lead to defensive practices on the part of NHS trusts to forbid their receptionists to provide any information about likely waiting times, as the judge observed. This reflects the fact that, as noted above, provision of such information is not part of the core function performed by a receptionist. It also indicates that there would be a social cost of imposition of a duty of care, in terms of withdrawal of information which is generally helpful to the public when provided as a courtesy, which is not offset by considerations of justice as between claimant and defendant in this sort of case. (paragraph 88)