A SOCIAL worker stabbed six times in the back by a mental patient who had earlier threatened to “kill her on the spot” has taken her bid for compensation to the country’s top judges.
Deranged Graham Burton issued his sinister warning two days before the near-fatal attack on 42-year-old Claire Selwood – but she was never told of the threat to her life.
Now mother-of-three Ms Selwood, who was left with a kitchen knife embedded in her back that took three surgeons to remove and lost five pints of blood, is fighting for compensation from the NHS in a case which raises crucial issues on the duties of mental health professionals to pass on such warnings.
Burton, 45, of Murton, Seaham, County Durham, attacked Ms Selwood, who was involved with his family, during a professional conference at a school in Easington Colliery in October 2006. He is currently serving an indefinite jail term after he admitted attempted murder.
Ms Selwood was profoundly traumatised by her ordeal and suffered injuries that have permanently affected her mobility.
Judges heard yesterday that two days before the attack Burton had 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, she would have taken steps to protect herself and blames two local NHS trusts involved in treating Burton for failing to alert her to his threat. However, Tees Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust are adamant 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, saying it would not be “fair, just and reasonable” to impose a legal duty of care on the trusts.
But now she is battling on in the Court of Appeal in a test case which goes to the root of duties owed by healthcare and social workers to communicate with one another.
Mr Kent told Lord Justice Thorpe, Lord Justice Rimer and Dame Janet Smith, the attack on Ms Selwood was “foreseeable” and there was an obligation to pass on Burton’s credible threat to her so that she could protect herself.
Given Government guidance that professionals in different disciplines should co-operate and communicate with each other, he said it was “eminently fair, just and reasonable” to impose a duty of care on the NHS Trusts.
Burton’s care was the responsibility of a “multi-disciplinary team” who were all “engaged in the same endeavour”, he added.
However, Angus Moon QC, for the two trusts, said such threats are “a common experience” for professionals dealing with the mentally ill and neither of them had “assumed responsibility” for Ms Selwood’s safety.
Burton was an “informal patient” – not compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act – and the QC said 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”, Mr Moon added.
Ms Selwood is also suing her employers at the time of the attack, Durham County Council, but must win her appeal if she is to widen her claim to embrace the two NHS trusts.
Given the widespread importance of the issues raised by the case, the three judges are expected to reserve their decision until a later date.
An independent investigation was commissioned in October 2007 by North East Strategic Health Authority to look into the healthcare provided to Graham Burton, to see if there were lessons to be learned by local mental health services.
While the panel were unable to conclude with absolute certainty that the attack on Claire Selwood could have been prevented, they did identify failures by those responsible for Burton’s care, admitting that the potential risk of Burton causing harm to others was not fully recognised or acted upon by those professionals involved.