One of the most common questions we get asked on our First Aid courses is "Will I get sued if I give first aid to a casualty?"
This is a reasonable question given the increasingly litigious world we live in. The most important thing to remember is that to date, no one in the UK has ever been sued for administering life-saving First Aid. The reasons and how you protect yourself from litigation are explained below.
OK lets deal with the legal jargon first!
Duty of Care
The “duty of care” is the responsibility one person or business has to be reasonably careful (or to use “reasonable care”) when dealing with others. In other words, the duty of care requires you to “look before you leap.” It is the first element that must be established to proceed with an action in negligence.
Reasonable care or the actions of a reasonable person, is a legal basis of Common Law representing an objective standard against which any individual's conduct can be measured. It is used to determine if a breach of the standard of care has occurred, provided a duty of care can be proven. What is important to remember is that your actions would be judged against those of a reasonable person of the same standing in a similar situation; the actions of a First Aider would therefore only be judged against those of someone of similar training and experience, not against the actions or decisions of a paramedic or doctor.
Negligence exists when a person breaches their duty of care owed to another through an act or omission which results in an injury or a loss. This is not the same as carelessness because someone might be exercising as much care as they are capable of, yet still fall below the level of competence expected of them.
Also known as case law or precedent, is law developed through previous cases by judges and through decisions of courts and similar tribunals rather than through legislative statutes.
Statute law is written law set down by a legislature, as opposed to Common Law.
Duty of Care and the First Aider
For a First Aider nominated in the workplace the situation may be different from those who are simply bystanders as it could be argued that they have assumed a heightened duty of care.
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the subsequent Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981, an employer is under a statutory duty to provide first-aiders in the workplace for the benefit of their employees. These first-aiders must undergo training to an approved standard in a specified list of competencies. As such, an individual who takes on this role as part of his job description could be argued to owe a duty of care to his fellow employees to render first aid.
A person, whether a healthcare professional or a member of the public, who witnesses a situation ‘in the street’ where life-saving First Aid might be required, is under no obligation to assist, provided the situation was not caused by them. However, if that person does choose voluntarily to intervene to give assistance they will assume a duty of care towards the individual concerned. By starting treatment you are accepting a responsibility to the care of that person.
Can I choose to do nothing?
Whilst there is no law that forces anyone to treat a casualty this does not mean that you can simply leave a casualty who you know is in danger. To do so may make you liable through your omission to act. If you are not happy to provide First Aid treatment in the 'classic' sense there are several things you can and should do including (but not limited to):
- Inform someone else, such as 999 if it is an emergency.
- Make the area around the casualty safe for yourself, others and the casualty.
- Monitor the casualty and/or find out what happened.
- Comfort the casualty.
These are examples of simple but important actions that can be done without 'getting your hands dirty' so to speak.
What if I injure the casualty?
A person who administers First Aid could only potentially be liable for damages if negligent intervention directly causes injury which would not otherwise have occurred, or if it exacerbates an injury.
If First Aid is administered inappropriately or negligently and a consequential injury can be proved to have arisen from that procedure, a First Aider may be held liable for damages if the standard of care given fell below that which could be expected of him in the given circumstances. This applies whether they are a healthcare professional, a non-professional volunteer first-aider, or simply an unskilled member of the general public.
For example, if a person inappropriately administered chest compressions where a casualty was not in cardiac arrest, which caused damage to the chest wall or underlying organs, they would be causing damage which would not otherwise have been suffered and, given that the casualty was not in need of emergency resuscitation, would by his intervention be leaving them in a worse position.
If, however, CPR is performed on a casualty in cardiac arrest, It is difficult to see how a persons intervention could leave someone worse off since a victim would, without immediate resuscitation, certainly die. Furthermore, if an AED is being used, it will only permit the administration of a defibrillatory shock when it detects a shockable rhythm and, since patients in this state are clinically dead, it is unlikely that any intervention with this device could make the situation worse.
Attending an accredited First Aid training course not only provides you with life saving skills but skills, knowledge and understanding of current best practice. A First Aid certificate is not a 'licence to treat' but it demonstrates that the candidate, at the time of the course, was able to perform tasks to a nationally recognised standard. By treating a casualty to these standards you are protecting yourself against a claim of negligence.
To treat a casualty in a way that goes against the training you have received or to treat a casualty using techniques you have not been trained in but have 'seen it on the telly' exposes you to a claim for negligence.
Anyone heard of the SARAH bill??
To give it its full title...the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism (SARAH) Bill.
This bill was brought in to help volunteers, community groups, businesses and people who step in heroically to help in dangerous circumstances – following years of concerns that people were being put off from doing simple good deeds for fear of legal action if something went wrong.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:
Not only have responsible small businesses been stifled by unnecessary insurance costs and the fear of being sued but volunteers have been deterred from taking part in socially beneficial activities and brave people have been put off from helping someone in trouble.
This much needed change to the law will encourage responsible employers to stand up to speculative and opportunistic claims, and will help reassure good deed doers who come to the aid of those in difficulty.
This act restores a balance to counter the health and safety culture, and provides valuable reassurance to people that courts will take full account of the context of their actions if someone is sued after acting in a socially beneficial way.
The act, which received Royal Assent, also provides greater protection to small business owners and others who face speculative or spurious claims in negligence, even if they have taken a responsible approach to safety training and procedures.
The new law means that judges must consider three additional factors when assessing liability in a negligence claim:
- If the person being sued was doing something for ‘the benefit of society’ to take account of the fact people were doing a good deed like volunteering, running an event or trip, or helping out by clearing snow.
- If they had been acting in a ‘predominantly responsible way’ to make sure the court will give consideration to the fact that people may have taken care when organising an activity but, in spite of their best efforts, an accident has happened.
- If they were ‘intervening in an emergency’ if they stepped in to help someone in danger but something went wrong.