Advice on Waiting Times in A & E

If you are unfortunate enough to attend A&E, does the receptionist have a responsibility to provide you with accurate information regarding waiting times? That was the question before the Supreme Court in the recent case of Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust.

The facts of the case were relatively simple. Mr Darnley who was then aged 26 was assaulted and suffered a head injury. A friend brought him to A&E at Mayday Hospital in Croydon.

Mr Darnley was booked in at reception and explained that he had suffered a head injury, was feeling very unwell and felt he needed urgent attention. The receptionist informed him that he would have to go and sit down and wait up to four to five hours before somebody looked at him. Mr Darnley told the receptionist that he could not wait that long as he felt he was about to collapse. He was told that if he did collapse he would be treated as an emergency.  Mr Darnley sat down and waited for 19 minutes but then decided to leave because he felt too unwell and wanted to go home to take some paracetamol. Unfortunately within an hour he collapsed and was rushed back to hospital by ambulance where he underwent surgery but tragically suffered permanent brain damage. Mr Darnley brought a claim against the hospital principally alleging that his injuries would have been avoided if he had received accurate advice.

At the original Trial the specific receptionist who spoke to Mr Darnley could not be identified but the two receptionists on duty that day explained that their normal procedure would have been to state that a triage nurse would see him within 30 minutes or as soon as possible. The Court concluded that had Mr Darnley been given this information he would have waited and his later collapse would have occurred within a hospital setting. Crucially in those circumstances he would have undergone immediate surgery and made a very near full recovery.

Mr Darnley however lost his case because the Court concluded that whilst the receptionist gave inaccurate or incomplete information, it would not be reasonable to impose liability on the hospital for the failure of a receptionist to provide advice regarding waiting times.

Mr Darnley appealed to the Court of Appeal but was unsuccessful with the Court principally concluding that the hospital did not owe a duty to advise on waiting times and to do so would impose a new layer of responsibility on clerical staff.

Finally, Mr Darnley appealed to the Supreme Court which is the final Court of Appeal in the UK for civil cases. The Supreme Court Judges were unanimous in allowing the Appeal concluding that the Hospital had a duty to provide reasonable care not to provide misleading information which foreseeably might result in an injury. Equally importantly, it was confirmed that it was not appropriate to distinguish between medical and non-medical staff. This does not mean that a receptionist is now expected to give medical advice, but instead they must act with the degree of skill reasonably expected of a person in their position. In the case of Mr. Darnley this simply meant telling him he would be assessed in triage at an early stage rather giving misleading information that he would have to wait 4-5 hours before being seen.

Whether this judgement will have any real impact on the advice given by frontline staff in hospitals, GP surgeries or dentists remains to be seen. In A&E I would for example not be surprised to see notices explaining the standard procedures for assessment and treatment in an attempt to reduce the risk of patients being given misleading information.

Gregory Abrams Davidson specialise in obtaining compensation for clients who have sustained injury as a result of Clinical Negligence. We have many years of experience dealing with claims against hospitals (both NHS and Private), dentists and general practitioners. Examples include claims arising as a result of negligently performed operations, delays in diagnosis, development of pressure sores, misdiagnosis of cancer and injuries sustained at birth.

We have offices in Liverpool City Centre, Garston Village, Allerton and London.  If you would like to enquire about a potential Clinical Negligence claim, contact a member of our Team on 0151 733 3353 or e-mail us at