When medical malpractice by a hospital doctor results in the death of your loved one, your first thought may be to sue the medical facility for damages. As strange as it may sound, however, the hospital may not be liable for the doctor's actions. Here's more information about this issue.
Hospitals are Only Responsible for Employees
Through a legal concept called vicarious liability, hospitals can be held responsible for the actions of their employees. However, while nurses and medical technicians generally are employees of hospitals, doctors—more often than not—are independent contractors who have an arrangement with the medical facility to provide services there.
This means that if the doctor's incompetence results in the death of your loved one, you would have to file a wrongful death suit against the doctor directly. Barring any other avenues of liability (e.g. the equipment used was faulty), the court would likely dismiss the case against the hospital and focus solely on the doctor.
Most times this may not be an issue of concern, as doctors usually have medical malpractice insurance that will cover any money the court awards in your case. However, you can run into a problem collecting compensation if the doctor let his or her insurance lapse (and thus is not covered), have had other claims that caused him or her to hit the annual limit set by the insurance company, or simply doesn't have enough coverage to pay your losses.
As hospitals tend to have more financial resources than an individual doctor, the risk of not getting paid would be significantly reduced, which is why going after the hospital directly may be the more attractive option.
Exceptions to the Employees Only Rule
Even though a doctor may not officially work for the hospital where the incident occurred, it may still be possible to attach liability for the doctor's actions to the facility in a few ways. Many states have corporate negligence laws that hold hospitals responsible for injuries to patients if those facilities give privileges to incompetent or dangerous doctors. It's the hospital's responsibility to ensure the doctors providing care at their establishments are qualified to do so and are not engaged in risky behavior that puts patients in danger.
If a doctor has been known to violate industry standards for his or her medical specialty and the hospital hires the individual anyway, for example, then the facility could be successfully sued for injuries the doctor causes.
The hospital may also be held liable if it has policies and procedures in place that contributed to the medical malpractice incident. For instance, a family is suing a Houston hospital because they claim the emergency staff delayed treatment for 41 minutes because the staff was trying to work out how their loved one was going to pay for his medical care. If a doctor fails to provide timely care to a patient experiencing a medical emergency because the hospital has a policy of refusing care until payment is made, then the injured party may have a viable case against the facility.
A third exception that may let you sue a hospital for the actions of a non-employee doctor is if it is unclear whether or not the medical professional is or isn't an employee. This type of confusion often happens in emergency rooms where the practitioner may not have an opportunity to notify the patient about his or her employment status at the facility before treating the person. As a result, courts have allowed cases to proceed against hospitals for medical malpractice caused by attending physicians or independent contractors because of this ambiguity.
Holding a hospital responsible for the actions of a non-employee doctor working at its facility can be challenging, but there are ways to go about bringing a viable case against the medical center. For more information about or assistance with this issue, contact a wrongful death attorney, such as those at Allison & Rickards, Attorneys at Law, LLC.