Posted by Richard Shallcross
Tulsa Individual Providers Medical Malpractice
Individual providers: doctors, nurses and other health care professionals
In addition to doctors and surgeons, a variety of other health care professionals, including dentists, psychiatrists, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, chiropractors and alternative medicine providers, can be held liable for medical malpractice. As with a case against a doctor, to be successful in a medical malpractice case against another health care professional, the plaintiff must prove that the provider owed a duty to the plaintiff, that the provider breached that duty by deviating from the acceptable standard of care, that the provider’s breach caused the plaintiff harm and that the plaintiff was injured.
In the context of medical malpractice actions, hospitals can be held directly liable for their own negligence, and can also be held “vicariously” liable for the negligence of their employees. Vicarious liability means a party is held responsible not for its own negligence, but rather for the negligence of another.
Direct hospital negligence
In hiring its medical staff, a hospital must make reasonable inquiries into an applicant’s education, training and licensing. If a hospital fails to make reasonable inquiries regarding a member of its medical staff, it might be held liable under the “corporate negligence” doctrine for negligent supervision or retention if the staff member’s negligent care injures a patient. A hospital might be held liable for its own negligence where, for example, it fails to investigate the credentials of an attending physician before granting him or her privileges at the hospital or where it allows a physician whom it knew, or should have known, was incompetent to treat patients at the hospital.
Hospitals are also required to ensure that there is a sufficient number of registered nurses on duty at all times to maintain quality patient care. A hospital that fails to do so may be held liable for injuries to patients resulting from a nursing shortage. Another area of potential liability arises when a hospital’s employees fail to follow the orders of a patient’s private attending physician. Conversely, if a hospital employee finds a private physician’s treatment plan to be clearly contraindicated, but fails to make a reasonable inquiry of the physician as to the treatment plan, the hospital could also be found liable.
Finally, hospitals may be held liable for failing to protect patients from harm, failing to adequately perform clinical tests, neglecting to keep accurate medical records and not properly admitting and discharging patients. In the area of admissions, hospitals are generally required to treat seriously injured or ill people on an emergency basis, and the refusal to do so may result in hospital liability. Additionally, federal and state statutes prohibit hospitals from refusing to treat or admit people based on their race, color, religion or national origin, or on their inability to pay for treatment.
When a hospital employee’s malpractice injures a patient, the hospital itself may be held vicariously liable under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior. Under this doctrine, an employer may be held liable for the negligent acts of its employee, if the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment when the negligent act or omission occurred. This doctrine is important to plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases, because it helps ensure there will be a financially responsible party to compensate an injured plaintiff.
In some situations, health care providers, such as physicians, are considered independent contractors rather than hospital employees, and the doctrine of respondeat superior will not apply. What this means is if a doctor or other health care professional is an independent contractor and commits malpractice while treating a patient in a hospital, the hospital cannot be held liable for the doctor’s negligence. However, the hospital can be held liable for its own negligence, for example, in granting attending privileges to an unlicensed or incompetent physician.
A number of courts have considered the question of whether health maintenance organizations (HMOs) can be held liable for the negligence of a member physician. Essentially, medical malpractice claims against HMOs proceed under the same theories as cases against hospitals. The first theory is direct negligence — that the HMO is liable for negligent hiring, supervision or retention of its doctors. The second theory is based on vicarious liability, agency or respondeat superior. It is important to note that many malpractice claims against HMOs may be subject to pre-emption by state or federal law. These pre-emption provisions are a way to protect HMOs chartered under state law from huge jury awards.