A SOCIAL worker stabbed six times by a mental patient who had earlier threatened to “kill her on the spot”, has won an appeal court test case.
Deranged Graham Burton issued his warning two days before the near-fatal attack on 42-year-old Claire Selwood, who had not been told of the threat to her life.
Ms Selwood, who was left with a kitchen knife embedded in her back and lost five pints of blood, is fighting for compensation in a case which raises crucial issues on the duties of mental health professionals to pass on such warnings.
Now three Appeal Court judges have laid down the law on that issue, as they opened the way for Ms Selwood to seek massive damages from two North East NHS trusts, as well as Durham County Council.
Burton, 45, of Murton, attacked Ms Selwood during a professional conference in County Durham in October 2006.
He is serving an indefinite jail term after he admitted attempted murder.
Ms Selwood was profoundly traumatised by her ordeal and the court heard that Burton had, just two days before the attack, told medics before his discharge from Sunderland’s Cherry Knowle Hospital that he would “kill her on the spot” if he saw her.
Her legal team, led by Michael Kent QC, says that had Ms Selwood, of Glanton Close, Morpeth, been warned of that threat, she would have taken steps to protect herself.
She is suing two NHS Trusts involved in Burton’s treatment – Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust – as well as her employer at the time, Durham County Council.
At the Court of Appeal, in London, the trusts insisted that, as Burton was not compulsorily detained and Ms Selwood did not work for them, they could not be held responsible.
A judge last year struck out Ms Selwood’s claim against the trusts, saying it would not be “fair, just and reasonable” to impose a legal duty of care on them.
However, overturning that ruling yesterday, Dame Janet Smith said Ms Selwood was not just an ordinary member of the public.
She was one of a small group of social workers, operating in close proximity and co-operation with the trusts.
The judge, sitting with Lords Justice Thorpe and Rimer, said Ms Selwood was “in a special position” and it would be open to the judge who will now hear her case against all three defendants that the trusts owed her a “duty of care”.
At the hearing of her compensation claim, a date for which has yet to be set, Ms Selwood’s lawyers will argue that she was “at real and immediate risk of a serious attack” at Burton’s hands and that what he did to her was reasonably foreseeable.
However, Angus Moon QC, for the trusts, pointed out that Burton was an “informal patient”, not compulsorily detained, and argued that there was no evidence of an “immediate threat” to Ms Selwood as he had said he was “trying to avoid” her.
A duty to pass on all threats made by patients, credible or not, would “add enormously to the complexity” of the work carried out by mental health professionals and the threat of legal action would encourage “defensive practices”, the barrister argued.