Tardy ambulance crew to face Law Lords

If successful, a case against the London Ambulance Service could pave the way for a flood of litigation, says Roger Pearson

THE ACCOUNTABILITY of the ambulance service will be brought into focus in a High Court action scheduled for February.

The Court of Appeal has ruled that London Ambulance Service must face a massive damages claim by a woman who accuses it of failing to respond promptly to an emergency call.

Asthma sufferer Tracey Kent, 34, of Orpington also accuses the ambulance men of failing to provide her with proper treatment on the way to hospital.

The test case could have major implications for all the emergency services.

Attempting to side-step the claim, the ambulance men relied on a 1997 appeal court ruling which established that they were not under a legal obligation to turn up to emergencies on time.

Last year, the High Court ruled that Kent's claim was hopeless and that the ambulance service was not under a duty of care to provide the service claimed by the plaintiff.

But now the case has been reinstated by Lords Justices Kennedy and Schiemann, and Sir Patrick Russell.

In the past, the ambulance service has always been regarded as being immune from being sued in this way.

The appeal court's decision could mean that this immunity is taken away. If the action is successful, it could pave the way for a flood of claims against the ambulance service by people who believe it did not act quickly enough.

The claim in this case centres around an ambulance call-out after Kent suffered an asthma attack in 1991.

It is alleged that, despite an emergency call from her doctor and two phone calls from her husband, the ambulance took more than half an hour to arrive, and that it took a further 15 minutes to get to the hospital.

Kent claims that, as a result of the delay and failure by the ambulance crew to provide continuous oxygen on the way to hospital, she suffered respiratory arrest leading to brain damage and the loss of her unborn baby.

The ambulance crew are said to have given Kent oxygen from time to time on the way to hospital. However, she still suffered respiratory failure shortly before arriving there.

She was later diagnosed as having suffered brain damage and is said to have been left severely and permanently disabled. The following March she miscarried her unborn child and was finally discharged from hospital in April 1991.

Her lawyers argue that the ambulance service was under a duty not just to provide an emergency service, but to ensure that she arrived at hospital within a certain time and not in a state of collapse.