Emergency services owe duty of care to individual following 999 call

Emergency services owed a duty of care to an individual who later committed suicide after they were deemed to have assumed responsibility for her…

Sherratt v Chief Constable of Greater Manchester [2018] EWHC 1746 (QB)

Executive summary

Emergency services owed a duty of care to an individual who later committed suicide after they were deemed to have assumed responsibility for her care. Assurances made by a call handler to the woman’s mother, who had called 999, were sufficient to impose a duty of care as the mother had relied on those assurances to her detriment.

The facts

The claimant brought claims in common law negligence and under the Human Rights Act 1998 against the defendant after his partner, Ms. Georgina Beevers (“the deceased”), was found dead at her home on the morning of Monday 30 January 2012. It was accepted that the deceased took her own life and the claims were for the benefit of the deceased’s dependants and estate.

At 6:44pm on Sunday 29 January 2012, Sheila Beevers (“the mother”) made a 999 call to Greater Manchester Police concerned for her daughter’s welfare. She was worried that the deceased may take an overdose of her anti-depressant medication and was concerned as she was unable to go to the house herself due to her ill-health. The mother explained that the deceased had been struggling and was “at the end of her tether”. The call was graded as a Grade 1 (Emergency Attendance) but was downgraded to a Grade 2 (Priority Attendance) within minutes. Officers attended the deceased’s home at 10:19pm but there was no response and they were unable to gain access. Two officers attended the home at 8:17am the following morning and were admitted to the house by one of the deceased’s children. They found the deceased dead in the living room, the medical cause of death being an overdose of her Amitriptyline medication.

A judge had to decide whether a duty of care was owed by the defendant to the deceased as a result of the mother’s 999 call.

Assumption of responsibility

Generally, emergency services do not owe a duty of care to the general public due to a lack of proximity and public policy reasons. However, a duty of care will be imposed if the emergency services are found to have assumed responsibility for an individual’s care. Merely answering a 999 call or attending a 999 call-out will not amount to an assumption of responsibility. In order to assume responsibility, more is required such as an assurance upon which detrimental reliance has been placed. The defendant submitted that any assurances were given to the mother rather than the deceased, meaning that there was no assumption of responsibility for the deceased and therefore no duty of care.

The recorder disagreed and found that the defendant had assumed responsibility for the deceased’s care. The call handler had informed the mother that officers would be dispatched to the house and would take any further necessary steps such as calling an ambulance. The mother expressed concern that the deceased required hospital treatment and was told to “leave that with us”. The recorder concluded that, but for these assurances, the mother would have taken further steps to ensure the deceased’s wellbeing such as calling an ambulance herself or calling a relative for help. The mother had been given assurances which she had relied on to her detriment. The recorder referred the parties to Kent v Griffiths [2001] QB 36 where an ambulance trust was found to have owed a duty of care to an individual in similar circumstances when assurances were made to a third party.

High Court decision

The defendant appealed to the High Court against the recorder’s findings of fact that there had been a clear and binding assurance and reliance, submitting that there was no evidential basis for either finding. The defendant also argued that the recorder should have drawn a distinction between the duty to protect an individual from external harm and a duty to protect an individual from self-inflicted harm.

The High Court held that the recorder’s decision had been reasonably open to him on the evidence before him. There was sufficient evidence to conclude that there was an assumption of responsibility by the defendant and that the mother had placed detrimental reliance upon it. The defendant had been told that the deceased was in a fragile mental state and could be a risk to her own safety. The recorder had found no distinction between the duty to protect from self-harm and the duty to protect from external harm. The recorder had also observed that suicide was not a simple process and could not be considered to be a free and rational choice and his findings were reasonable. On that basis, the defendant owed a duty of care to the deceased and the appeal was dismissed.

Comment

This is a concerning decision for the emergency services, particularly in view of the keenly-awaited Supreme Court decision in Darnley v Croydon Health Services NHS Trust which concerns the duty of care owed by health service employees (not clinicians). The requirement for ‘detrimental reliance’ to be in place is likely to be fact-specific but nevertheless this is a decision with significant implications for all those engaged in the provision of emergency services.

The case potentially leaves the emergency services, including ambulance trusts, even more exposed to claims. At a time when there are already unprecedented pressures on ambulance trusts, the decision highlights the importance of grading calls accurately and responding within the required timeframes.

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