When you experience medical malpractice at the hands of a doctor while receiving treatment in a hospital, your natural assumption is to hold the hospital liable for your injuries along with the doctor. However, the doctor's relationship to the facility isn't always as it seems, making it challenging to hold the hospital responsible for the doctor's actions. Here are three questions you need to ask and answer to help you determine if it's possible to sue the hospital for damages caused by a doctor there.
Is the Doctor an Employee of the Hospital?
A hospital can be held liable for a doctor's actions, but only if that doctor is a hospital employee. Vicarious liability laws state employers can be held responsible for the actions of their employees as long as the harmful action occurred while the employee was operating within the scope of his or her employment. So the hospital could be sued for medical malpractice if a surgeon who works for it leaves medical equipment in a patient that causes injury or death to the person.
Unfortunately, most doctors who work in hospitals are independent contractors. They typically have their own practices and generally only attend to their own patients who happen to be in the hospital at that time. Sometimes there are doctors who will treat any patient that happens to come to the hospital but, again, the person may be employed as an independent contractor who is legally separate from the hospital organization.
The doctor and the hospital will typically notify you upfront whether the doctor is an employee or an independent contractor. If you weren't notified about the doctor's employment status, you may still be able to sue the hospital for damages since its relationship to the doctor wasn't made clear.
Did the Doctor Have a History of Malpractice or Incompetence?
Hospitals are tasked with protecting patients. To that end, they are required to ensure medical professionals who have contact with patients are properly licensed and demonstrated an ability to do the work competently and professionally. If the hospital gave admitting privileges to a doctor it knew—or should have known—was incompetent or dangerous, the facility could be held responsible for any damages the doctor caused, regardless of whether he or she was an employee or independent contractor.
For instance, one Louisiana doctor is on record paying $2.7 million dollars to settle nine medical malpractice claims that arose between 1992 and 2007. At least five patients in those nine cases died as a result of their injuries. If a hospital knew about this doctor's history and granted him unrestricted privileges anyway, the next patient who was injured by the medical professional could hold the hospital responsible.
It's important to note that you don't have to prove the hospital did know about the doctor's incompetence, though that would be helpful, only that the facility should have know about the doctor's dangerous background had it done its due diligence. However, even this can be tricky since settlement cases aren't publicized and sometimes a doctor's disciplinary record is sealed (or identifying information stripped from it). You will definitely need to work with a medical malpractice lawyer who can help you overcome these challenges.
Did the Doctor Work in the Emergency Room?
Lastly, you need to determine if the doctor worked in an emergency room. Due to the nature of emergency care, it's not always possible to inform patients that a doctor is not an employee of the hospital before said doctor treats them. Because of this, courts have found hospitals can be held liable for medical malpractice caused by doctors working in the ER, regardless of the person's employment status.
Be aware, though, that the bar for proving medical malpractice in the ER is much higher than it is for care provided in other places, such as the doctor's office. That's because the emergency room is a hectic place, and it can be difficult to get all the relevant information to provide the right care. Thus, you must often prove the doctor behaved in an extremely negligent manner above and beyond normal mistakes that can occur in an ER to win your case.
For help with your medical malpractice case or more information about suing a hospital, contact an attorney.