Roger Pearson looks at the increasing number of litigation claims arising from cases of bullying and harassment of hospital staff

Litigation involving nurses has traditionally centred on incidents such as back injuries suffered through the use of inappropriate lifting procedures. Now, though, the spectre of harassment has raised its head in the nursing field and it looks likely to become an active area of litigation.

Theatre sister Andrea Sefton has just received a £7,500-payout from Bury Health Care Trust, after claims she suffered assault and harassment by a senior consultant anaesthetist and other senior staff.

The Royal College of Nursing's (RCN) legal department says this is the first time an action of this nature has resulted in a payment. It adds that the case is, unhappily, the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Complaints by nurses of harassment, bullying and the effects of being made to work excessive hours began to emerge in the early 1990s. Since then the RCN has considered suing in a number of cases.

Some have been dropped as a result of insufficient evidence, but the Sefton case was due to go to a contested county court battle had the health trust not settled.

Solicitor Helen Caulfield, who represented Sefton and who is one of a team of 13 in-house solicitors acting for the RCN's 312,000 members, says there are about 40 cases in the pipeline.

Some are relatively low key matters, but one, scheduled to reach the High Court later this year, is a claim involving a Liverpool nurse who alleges that hospital management failed to stop aggressive and violent bullying which drove her out of her job.

She has not been able to return to nursing since and, according to Caulfield, the claim could be worth £100,000.

The Sefton case started with an incident in which a consultant anaesthetist first hit the theatre sister on the head and then shouted at her when she raised the matter with him. Later he refused to work with her and twice had her removed from the operating theatre.

Fortunately, Sefton retained all documentation relating to her formal complaints about what had happened, which Caulfield says is vital in cases of this nature.

'One of the problems with this sort of case is that invariably the victims do not keep documentation in the way they should,' explains Caulfield.

She says that the problem of harassment at hospitals is more common than is realised.

'We have come across incidents of bullying by senior managers who have belittled staff and have done things such as stopping them taking holidays and making them work inappropriate shifts,' says Caulfield.

'Last year the RCN launched a document on bullying which resulted in a huge number of nurses coming forward. It appears that they had thought they were isolated victims when in fact this sort of thing is far more widespread.'

She says that one of the problems with such cases is that the wisdom of mounting a claim has to be balanced against the continuing psychological stress the victim will suffer as a result of having pending litigation hanging over their heads.

Nevertheless, Caulfield predicts it is an area of litigation that will continue to grow and that the case of Andrea Sefton, although settled without a full hearing, has been a victory for all victims of hospital bullying.