Stabbed social worker wins right to sue health authorities

The Court of Appeal has given Claire Selwood the go ahead to pursue her claim against two NHS trusts after it emerged medical staff failed to warn her about the threat of an attack.

A social worker stabbed by a psychiatric patient for whose child she was responsible has won the right to sue the two health authorities in charge of her attacker’s care.

If the case is ultimately successful, local authorities and NHS trusts may be required in future to check that threats against the personal safety of social workers are made known to all parties, taken seriously and acted upon, according to Unison.

Claire Selwood was stabbed six times by Graham Burton, of Murton, after he confronted her during a meeting at his child’s school in County Durham.

Burton was receiving in-patient mental health care from Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust and community-based mental health care from Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Trust prior to the attack. He was on leave from hospital when the meeting took place.

Selwood was the allocated social worker for his daughter, who was the subject of care proceedings along with two siblings.

Just two days before the attack, Burton told medical staff at Cherry Knowle Hospital in Sunderland that he would kill Selwood “on the spot” if he saw her; the latest in a string of threats. He also told staff he had feelings of inner rage and admitted he had been violent towards others in the past.

Burton was jailed indefinitely in June 2007 for attempted murder. An independent inquiry found there had been a “complete failure” on the part of medical staff to warn Selwood of any danger.

Following the attack, the social worker began a claim for compensation against her employer, Durham Council, and the two mental health trusts.

The case against the trusts was dismissed by Newcastle County Court on the grounds they did not owe Selwood a duty of care, but in July last year she was given leave by the High Court to appeal.

Today, the Court of Appeal accepted it was arguable that the two NHS Trusts did owe her a duty of care based on their responsibilities under an agreed protocol. Selwood can now continue the claim against her employer and the trusts.

“The attack on Claire was shocking, but also shocking is the fact that it could and should have been prevented,” said Gill Hale, Unison’s northern regional secretary.

She added: “Organisations working in partnership with social workers and other vulnerable workers must be required to do a ‘Selwood check’ to make sure that any threats made to employee’s lives are taken seriously and acted on.”
A spokesperson for Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust said: “We understand how distressing this continues to be for Miss Selwood, but unfortunately, because proceedings are still continuing on this case, it would be inappropriate for us to make any further comment.”

Durham Council has worked with partner agencies to significantly improve risk management, information-sharing and communication since the attack. Both trusts have apologised to Selwood and improved their services based on learning from internal reviews and the independent inquiry.

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