Court success: homelessness charity not responsible for deceased’s general welfare

  • The family of a man with alcohol addiction, who died hours after being admitted to a crisis residential unit, sued the charity which ran it
  • The claimant argued that having determined he needed detox medication, Turning Point Scotland should either have obtained the medication immediately, or called an ambulance
  • Dismissing the claim, the judge ruled the charity was not responsible for the deceased’s general welfare, and had no reason to believe his life was in immediate danger

This important duty of care case relates to the death of a man who had sought help from a charity to withdraw from alcohol.

Background

The defendant, Turning Point Scotland, is a homelessness charity offering support and accommodation for those experiencing crisis as a result of alcohol addiction.

On 1 July 2013, the deceased was assessed by the defendant’s employee and was offered and accepted a place at its Crisis Residential Unit. The deceased wanted the defendant’s support in withdrawing from alcohol.

During the initial assessment, it was determined that the deceased required alcohol detoxification medication. The defendant did not stock medication and had no doctors on site. Medical support was provided by visiting medical officers who prescribed medication to service users as required.

The deceased was shown to his room in the unit at around 3.30pm, and told the defendant’s employee that he was tired and wanted to “get his head down”. He was placed on hourly observations and a staff member noted the deceased to be sleeping at 4.30pm and 5.30pm.

At 6.30pm the deceased was checked by a member of staff, found to be unresponsive and pronounced dead shortly after. He had not been given any medication prior to his death.

The relatives of the deceased claimed that the defendant had a general duty of care to not assess or admit a person such as the deceased to its facilities. If that was incorrect, then there was a duty to provide a safe system for his admission and treatment.

Finally, they claimed the defendant was vicariously liable for the failures of its employee, who ought to have obtained detox medication immediately, and, if that was not possible, called an ambulance.

Decision

The Judge, Lord Clark found in favour of the defendant:

  • General duty of care – it was simply not “just, fair and reasonable” to expect the defendant to have a general duty to have a safe system. Lord Clark had regard to the fact that the defendant is a homelessness charity with limited staff and resources
  • Assumption of responsibility – the defendant had assumed responsibility to provide the deceased with a bed, to request medication and finally administer that medication in the event that it was prescribed. The defendant had not however assumed responsibility for the welfare of the deceased as a generality. The defendant had not accepted responsibility for the deceased in the same way as a hospital would, and there was no evidence to suggest that the deceased thought they were doing so
  • Vicarious liability – Lord Clark accepted in its entirety the evidence of the employee who admitted the deceased to the defendant’s unit. The employee said that, as an experienced alcohol worker, he saw nothing in the deceased’s presentation that gave him cause for concern or necessitated calling an ambulance

Commentary

This is a very important judgement for charities and the public sector generally. Lord Clark has provided a clear and thorough analysis of how a court should approach the application of duty of care in ‘novel’ situations.

This claim was handled by Steven McGhee from our Specialist Claims Team in Glasgow. Elena Fry, Partner at Brodies Solicitors, represented us throughout the litigation.