Nurses get tough on health trusts

No more the reluctant litigant, the Royal College of Nursing has stepped up protection of its members, writes Roger Pearson.

The nursing profession has toughened its stance on taking health authorities to court over injuries suffered by their members at work.

Two recent cases, one at each end of the settlement scale, serve to illustrate that injuries sustained at work by nursing personnel are increasingly likely to be followed by litigation, provided the injury can be blamed on lax safety procedures.

In one recent case, nurse Jean Ruddick was awarded u4,000 by a judge after she slipped in the dermatology treatment room of Chester-le-Street Hospital in 1995 and received shoulder injuries.

In another case, biological science tutor and former nurse Carole Webster accepted an out-of-court settlement of nearly u350,000 from East London & City Health Authority after an accident. Webster, who was already partially disabled, twisted her back badly after a hospital swing door jammed, causing her to lose balance. She now has to use crutches or a wheelchair and is unable to work.

The two cases may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are part of a substantial nationwide caseload which the Royal College of Nursing's (RCN) legal department is currently handling.

The RCN's director of legal services, Richard Bernhard, stresses that the health and safety of its members are being taken increasingly seriously and that his department's casebook reflects this. He regards the Webster case as a "breakthrough".

"Although East London & City Health Authority did not accept liability, the out of-court settlement of the case at such a high level is an important breakthrough for future personal injury cases, particularly in the light of Carole's existing disability," he says.

"Hospital employers must ensure that staff are able to do their jobs without fear of injury. This case also shows that accidents do not necessarily have to take place on hospital wards for them to face claims."

The award in the case of Ruddick was small by comparison with that of Webster, but the RCN still regards the case as significant because it shows that actions over nursing injuries have moved a long way from the traditional field of claims – back injuries sustained as a result of incorrect lifting techniques.

Ruddick received her injuries after slipping on a floor which had been rendered dangerous by spillage of ointments used to treat patients.

In her case, the judge said there was no doubt that the floor was dangerous and that it was reasonable to expect the health trust would do more than it had done to ensure that it was safe.

The case was handled by Linda Davies, one of the RCN's team of regional-based solicitors.

"Although the award was relatively low, I believe the case is of general significance in that it illustrates that whatever the potential level of a claim, we are prepared to take hospital authorities to court," she says.

"This and the other cases we are involved in serve as a warning to health trusts everywhere that they cannot behave in the way some of them have been doing when it comes to the safety of their workforce."