• In the case of Kent v Griffiths [2001] QB 36, a distinction was made between the medical authorities with other public authorities (police, fire brigades) on grounds of public policy court judgements, which attached culpability to the London Ambulance Service as it could not be treated the same way as the latter

Facts of the Case

  • The plaintiff (C), a pregnant and asthmatic woman, was at home and incurred respiratory problems, so her GP went to visit her; C’s condition worsened and eventually it became apparent that she had been suffering from bronchial asthma
  • The GP called 999 at 4.27 pm to request an ambulance to take the patient to hospital and provided C’s details
  • Although the nearest ambulance was about 6.5 miles away from C’s home, it took nearly 40 minutes to arrive and an ambulance crew member recorded a false arrival time of 4.47 pm  
  • Due to the grossly inadequate medical intervention, C suffered a miscarriage, a memory impairment and a personality change
  • Originally, D (though the action was brought against the London Ambulance Service) was ordered to pay C damages for negligently responding to the ambulance call and negligently supplying oxygen to C during the ambulance transfer; culpability arose because a respiratory arrest would have been avoided if there was no delay in the ambulance’s arrival

Issues in Kent v Griffiths [2001] QB 36

  • LAS appalled on a policy decision ground, i.e. it considered itself an institution similar to the police or the fire brigade, which were protected under from owing a common law duty of care to the public at large

Held by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division)  

  • Appeal dismissed – the medical authority and the ambulance service were providing public law duty of care, which could not be voluntarily assumed, so there was no other way to perform the function of transporting Kent to hospital; as the ambulance had been called only and specifically for C, this affirmed the judges’ ratio and imposed culpability on LAS

Lord Woolf MR

Aldous LJ and Laws LJ agreed with Lord Woolf that the appeal should be dismissed; Lord Woolf provided the judgement for this case, focusing on establishing proximity and making the following three observations

  • ‘In its statutory context the ambulance service is more properly described as part of the National Health Service than as a rescue service. As part of the health service it should owe the same duty to members of the public as other parts of the health service. The LAS had not been responsible for the claimant’s asthma but it had caused the respiratory arrest and to this extent the LAS was the author of additional damage. There was no question of any conflict as to whom the duty of care was owed, if there was a duty.’ [paragraph 14]
  • ‘The provision of ambulances is its statutory function. The LAS and its crews are paid out of public moneys to provide their services. It is wholly inappropriate to regard the LAS and its employees as volunteers.’ [paragraph 19]
  • ‘The distinction between duties and powers is important because, the exercise of a power being discretionary, it is unlikely that there will be any duty of care.’ [paragraph 43]