Patient left paralysed wins ruling over misleading advice from A&E receptionist

A man left paralysed after leaving A&E following “misleading” advice from a hospital receptionist will receive damages after winning a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

Michael Darnley was wrongly told he faced a five-hour wait at the Mayday Hospital in Croydon, south London, where he was taken after being struck over the head in an attack in May 2010.

The then 26-year-old felt too unwell to stay at the hospital and returned home, but later suffered a catastrophic bleed on the brain and was left with left-sided paralysis.

He sued Croydon Health Services NHS Trust at a High Court trial, but his claim was rejected in a ruling later upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Five Supreme Court justices unanimously held he is entitled to compensation because the giving of such misleading information about his expected wait time was “negligent”.

Announcing the court’s decision on Wednesday, Lord Lloyd-Jones said: “The appellant was misinformed as to the true position and, as a result, misled as to the availability of medical assistance.

“The trial judge made the critical finding that it was reasonably forseeable that a person who believes that it may be four or five hours before he will be seen by a doctor may decide to leave.

“In the light of that finding, I have no doubt that the provision of such misleading information by a receptionist as to the time within which medical assistance might be available was negligent.”

Mr Darnley was struck over the back of the head by an unknown attacker in May 2010 and was taken to the hospital by a friend.

He told an A&E receptionist he was worried he had a head injury and needed urgent attention, but she told him to sit down and said he would have to wait up to five hours to be seen by a doctor.

After 19 minutes, he left the hospital because he felt too unwell and wanted to go home so he could take some painkillers.

Within an hour of returning home, he collapsed and was rushed back to the hospital by ambulance before being transferred to another hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery.

Despite rejecting his original case, the High Court judge found Mr Darnley would have made a “very near full recovery” had he still been at the Mayday Hospital when he collapsed.

Lord Lloyd-Jones said it was not suggested the trust’s receptionists should have given accurate information to each patient on arrival about when they would be seen by a medically-qualified member of staff.

He added: “Anyone who has any experience of A&E departments will know that this would be impossible.

“The pressures on medical staff are enormous, the demand for attention is constantly fluctuating and priorities are likely to change.

“However, it is not unreasonable to require receptionists to take reasonable care not to provide misleading information as to the likely availability of medical assistance.”

Mr Darnley’s solicitor Deborah Blythe, head of the clinical negligence team at Russell-Cooke law firm, said this was the first case involving compensation for an injury caused by a receptionist giving misleading information at A&E.

She said: “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 does not mean that reception staff should accurately state the precise time a patient would be seen by medically qualified staff.

“They must take reasonable care not to provide misleading information about availability of medical assistance.

“The standard of care required is that of an averagely competent and well-informed person performing the function of a receptionist in a department providing emergency medical care.”

Lord Lloyd-Jones said the amount of damages Mr Darnley will receive will be assessed by the High Court at a later date.

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