Archive October 2016 XVII, No. 10

Medical Malpractice: Yes, Patients Can Directly Sue Your Facility

Under corporate negligence, you owe patients these 4 distinct duties.

Amy Redington Riley

Amy Redington Riley, JD

BIO

Christian Francis, JD

BIO

policies and procedures CORPORATE LIABILITY When it comes to malpractice, facility liability starts and stops with your policies and procedures.

When you think of malpractice, you likely think of a patient suing you for the actions of your physicians or staff, but patients can also directly sue your hospital or surgical center under a doctrine called corporate negligence. One of the seminal cases on this topic is a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Thompson v. Nason Hospital (osmag.net/V4JBpk). Before this case, courts typically found hospitals immune from malpractice suits. But in this case, the court laid out 4 distinct duties that a healthcare facility owes its patients. Generally speaking, if a plaintiff can prove that the hospital breached any of these duties, the hospital can be held directly liable to the plaintiff in addition to also potentially being held vicariously liable for the actions of its doctors, nurses or other staff.

Maintain a safe and adequate facility
The first duty highlighted in the Thompson case requires hospitals to "use reasonable care in the maintenance of safe and adequate facilities and equipment." This may seem like an obvious responsibility, but when you consider the expansive infrastructure of many larger institutions, it can become overwhelming. Consider this: An elderly, fall-risk patient is in a room equipped with bed alarms and other measures to ensure he doesn't ambulate without assistance from staff. But the patient decides he's feeling up for a walk down the hallway. As he leaves the bed, the alarm malfunctions and doesn't notify staff that he has stood up. During his journey, he loses his balance, falls and breaks his hip.

Blame can, and will, be distributed amongst the staff that needed to have line-of-sight vision of him and those who needed to check on him regularly. But the facility may also be on the hook, because even though the bed alarm malfunctioned, the facility still owes an implicit duty to its patients to maintain its equipment. If it's discovered that you didn't exhibit reasonable care to maintain the bed alarms (for example, you slacked on regular maintenance checks), then the court may find you directly liable in the form of corporate negligence.

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