Independent Duties Hospitals Owe Patients: Direct Liability for Medical Malpractice

Generally, depending on the jurisdiction, hospitals have a number of independent duties to patients. For example, according to Am. Jur. 2d Hospitals and Asylums § 26 Standard of care; corporate negligence doctrine, in some jurisdictions hospitals owe a duty to patients (1) to use reasonable care in the maintenance of safe and adequate facilities and equipment; (2) to select and retain only competent physicians; (3) to oversee as to patient care all persons who practice medicine within their walls; and (4) to formulate, adopt, and enforce adequate rules and policies to ensure quality care for their patients.

Two recent cases clarified the contours of the duties a hospital owes a patient. One addressed a hospital’s duty to ensure a medical device it owned was used safely. The other addressed the question of whether a hospital owes a nondelegable duty to render competent service to its emergency room patients.

Courts have held that hospitals have an independent duty to ensure a medical device is used safely. For example, in Taylor v. Intuitive Surgical, Inc., 2017 WL 532497 (Wash., February 9, 2017) (not designated for publication), a patient sued a manufacturer of a robotic surgical device for laparoscopic surgeries for failure to warn the hospital that purchased the device of its risks. The Supreme Court for the state of Washington held that the learned intermediary doctrine did not bar a plaintiff’s claim against a medical device manufacturer for failing to warn a hospital that purchased the medical device. The manufacturer’s duty to warn the hospital was not met by providing warnings to the doctor using the product. Under the learned intermediary doctrine, manufacturers of medical products can satisfy their duty to warn patients of the risks of their products by providing those warnings to the doctors prescribing the products. Washington’s law imposed a duty on the manufacturer to provide warnings to the purchaser of the product, separate and distinct from the manufacturer’s duty to warn doctors. The doctor was not a learned intermediary between the manufacturer and the hospital. The Supreme Court of Washington reversed the trial court’s entry of judgment in favor of the medical device manufacturer.

Jurisdictions are divided over whether a hospital owes a nondelegable duty to render competent service to its emergency room patients. For example, in Bain v. Colbert Cty. Nw. Alabama Health Care Auth., 2017 WL 541912 (Ala., February 10, 2017) (not designated for publication), a man’s estate sued a hospital for medical malpractice on the grounds that the negligent treatment of the hospital’s ER nurses and physician resulted in their failure to timely diagnose his aortic aneurysm. The Supreme Court of Alabama held that a hospital did not have a non-delegable duty to provide a patient with emergency medical physician services within the standard of care. The Alabama Supreme Court reasoned that Alabama’s regulations regarding hospitals did not impose a specific duty on the hospital to provide its patients with emergency medical physician services within the applicable standard of care for an emergency room physician. The regulations indicated that each doctor practicing in the hospital was ultimately responsible for the medical care rendered to the patients whom he or she treats. Alabama’s regulations require a hospital to properly organize, staff, and equip emergency rooms to meet the emergency needs of patients in accordance with acceptable standards of practice of hospitals, not in accordance with acceptable standards of physicians. The court explained that the duty of care owed to a patient by a physician is distinct from the duty of care owed to a patient by a hospital. The Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the hospital.

Practitioners should consider direct claims against hospitals in addition to standard claims for vicarious liability. Medical device product liability complaints may include claims based on a hospital’s independent duty to ensure a medical device is used safely. Complaints regarding emergency department care may include claims based on a hospital’s duty to render competent service to its emergency room patients.

By Sarah Kelman, JD, and the experts and editors at Medical Law Perspectives.

For more details about Taylor v. Intuitive Surgical, Inc., 2017 WL 532497 (Wash., February 9, 2017) (not designated for publication), see the Scalpel Weekly News, February 20, 2017, “Medical Device Manufacturers Have Duty to Warn Hospitals.”

For more details about Bain v. Colbert Cty. Nw. Alabama Health Care Auth., 2017 WL 541912 (Ala., February 10, 2017) (not designated for publication), see the Scalpel Weekly News, February 20, 2017, “Hospital Not Liable for ER Doctor’s Failure to Diagnose Aortic Aneurysm.”

See also Medical Law Perspectives, October 2015 Report: Unclean, Unsterile, Unsafe: Risks of Injury from Unsterilized Medical Equipment

See also Medical Law Perspectives, June 2014 Report: Physician and Manufacturer Risks for Pain Pump Injuries: Malpractice, Negligence, and Products Liability

See also Medical Law Perspectives, April 2012 Report: Using Medical Devices Off-Label: False Claims, Overpromotion, Malpractice, and Other Dangerous Territory

See also Medical Law Perspectives, February 2015 Report: Mending a Broken Heart: Malpractice Risks in Diagnosing and Treating Heart Disease

See also Medical Law Perspectives, February 2014 Report: Congenital Heart Conditions: How Infants, Adults, and Healthcare Providers Handle the Risks

See also Medical Law Perspectives, December 2013 Report: Thicker than Water: Liability When Blood Clots Cause Injury or Death

See also Medical Law Perspectives, November 2013 Report: Diagnosis and Treatment of Heart Attacks: Liability Issues

See also Medical Law Perspectives, October 2013 Report: Brain Aneurysm and Subarachnoid Hemorrhage: Failure to Diagnose, Delayed Diagnosis, Misdiagnosis

See also Medical Law Perspectives, June 2012 Report: Too Much, Too Little, Too Late: Injuries from Delays and Failures to Perform CT Scans or Overexposure to Radiation

To Sign Up for the FREE Scalpel Weekly News giving you the latest FDA, CDC, and DOJ alerts, warnings, and announcements, and curated medical litigation cases, CLICK HERE.

This entry was posted in courts, law and medicine, law practice, litigation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>