When an individual is injured in the process of medical treatment and suspects medical malpractice, he or she has the right to hold all responsible parties accountable for any negligence—including the hospital. That is, unless the treating physician is an independent practitioner.
Historically, such pursuits have petered out in cases where the primary doctor was not affiliated with the hospital itself. From a legal standpoint, Respondeat Superior—or “let the master answer” in Latin—does not apply because the hospital is not the employer of the negligent physician. In other words, the doctrine of vicarious liability, or holding one responsible for the actions of another, is not relevant because the independent doctor was not representing the institution. Yet, this interpretation could be changing as public view and society in general continue to evolve.
Fueled by a shift in both marketing tactics and public perception, hospitals are seen less and less as simply structures where doctors practice and more as healthcare entities that offer a level of complete and total care. With this inference comes an implication of responsibility, and some courts are beginning to favor plaintiffs in such cases. Building upon the theory of apparent agency, states such as California, Indiana, Ohio and Connecticut are establishing precedents similar to Wisconsin’s Pamperin v. Trinity Memorial Hospital, where the state supreme court held that there was an expectation of responsibility when a hospital presents itself to the public as providing complete medical care and that patients rely on the hospital to ensure that qualified and competent physicians are part of that service.
Today, we’re seeing hospitals and other healthcare facilities spending billions of dollars each year on television commercials, billboards and other advertising to nurture the image of a single source for all of one’s healthcare needs—yet few acknowledge the fact that this also creates a singular source of responsibility as well. The Ohio Supreme Court references the relationship between the modern hospital and contemporary society best by saying, “The public, in looking to the hospital to provide such care, is unaware of and unconcerned with the technical complexities and nuances surrounding the contractual and employment arrangements between the hospital and the various medical personnel operating therein… public policy dictates that the public has every right to assume and expect that the hospital is the medical provider it purports to be.”
While such contemporary court views are important milestones that speak of upcoming change, today’s story is still a tale of caution. When seeking medical help, it’s important to know not only your doctor, but also the support staff that might assist in any treatment while in the care of one’s chosen hospital. You should also be aware of the prevailing attitudes of your state in regards to medical malpractice and, above all, understand your rights as a patient before consenting to treatment.
Both an Emory School of Law graduate and MBA graduate of Goizueta Business School at Emory, Chris Nace focuses his practice on areas of medical malpractice, drug and product liability, motor vehicle accidents, wrongful death, employment discrimination and other negligence and personal injury matters.