Who Is Responsible for Injuries Sustained in the Hospital?

By Peter DePaolis

When you go to the hospital, you expect to leave feeling better. Whether you are there from an injury, illness, or recovering after surgery, you trust that the physicians, nurses, assistants, and administrators all have your best interests at the top of their list.

Unfortunately, accidents at local area hospitals happen. And when you suffer an injury under the care of a physician at the hospital and you have damages because of that accident, you may wonder whom you can hold accountable. Would it be the physician? The hospital staff? Alternatively, can you hold the hospital, itself, responsible?

The answer would depend on factors such as the nature of the injury, the hospital staff members involved, and whether outside parties could also be held accountable (such as a pharmaceutical company).

The Two Basic Types of Hospital Liability in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland

When injuries occur inside a hospital, two basic liability principles are considered: direct liability or vicarious liability.

Direct Liability

Direct liability means the hospital, itself, was careless or negligent, and that action caused your injury. For example, let’s say a hospital administration cuts back on funding for appropriate staff numbers overnight. Patients in the Intensive Care Unit require around-the-clock care, but one patient suffers serious injury overnight because there was only one nurse on duty instead of the four that was needed. Had the appropriate number of staff been on that night, someone would have attended to the patient and treated them before he or she had irreversible complications.

Another instance of direct liability would be negligent hiring practices, such as failing to do a proper background check that allowed an unlicensed physician to practice in their emergency room.

Vicarious Liability

Vicarious liability occurs when the hospital is liable for any reckless, purposeful, or negligent acts of their employees. Hospitals that hire physicians as independent contractors try to avoid liability because independent contractors are not employees; therefore, the hospital would not be liable for their actions. If, however, the hospital granted permissions to a physician that was unlicensed or unqualified, they can be liable even if they are not an employee of the hospital.

Does Your Physician or the Responsible Staff Member Work for the Hospital?

To determine whether the hospital is liable or not, you must first decide if the physician or hospital staff member is an employee or an independent contractor. You might pay for your doctor’s services (or your health insurance does), but are they an employee of the hospital or do they work for themselves?

If the hospital directly employs the physician, then you could name the hospital and the physician in your injury claim, citing vicarious liability. However, the hospital may try to claim that the physician is a contractor and not part of their staff. Independent contractors do complicate the matter, but it does not mean that you have no options for recovery.

Your attorney would explore how much control the hospital had over the physician. Some hospitals will try to state a physician is a contractor, but when the hospital has too much control over the hours and practice of that physician, the law might classify them as an employee – regardless of contractual arrangements.

When a physician is not part of the hospital staff, you can still hold that physician responsible. Healthcare providers carry malpractice insurance for instances like this, and your attorney would file a claim against the physician’s insurance to receive compensation. It is best to let an attorney handle negotiations. While the insurance company is there to pay out in cases like this, they will not do so easily. They look for opportunities to lessen the compensation paid to malpractice victims, and you need an attorney there to negotiate on your behalf and make sure you get the compensation you deserve.

Can You Sue the Hospital for Damages?

Even if the physician was a contractor, you might be able to name the hospital as part of the lawsuit. After all, a hospital, just like your physician, has a duty to provide you with the best standard of care and ensure that you receive non-negligent care. Furthermore, they are required to ensure all physicians allowed into their facility are competent.

By failing to protect their patients from negligent physicians, the hospital has put themselves into a position where they can be liable. While they might not be directly liable for their employee, they are liable for their inattention to the care given in their facility.

Most patients will pick a hospital for its reputation. If you were to have your surgery at one hospital, it is likely because you know the hospital has a better reputation and you were confident in the services you would receive there compared to others in the area. Also, when you arrive at the hospital, part of your admission packet includes information about the standard of care you will receive by the facility. Some patients are forced to sign documents that they cannot hold the hospital liable for acts of their physicians. However, these documents do not always hold up in court.

Depending on the type of injury you suffer, the hospital is still in control of the facility. For example, you are injured in surgery and the physician does not own the hospital’s surgery suite – the hospital does. Also, if a physician misdiagnosed you because of a malfunctioning MRI scan, then you would be able to hold the hospital responsible. While the physician might have misdiagnosed you, the physician was not responsible for the care and maintenance of the machine.

Speak with a Malpractice Attorney to Explore Your Options

The only way to find out whether you can hold a hospital accountable or not is to speak with an attorney about your case. The attorneys at Koonz McKenney Johnson & DePaolis LLP, can assist you with your case. We understand how confusing and devastating it can be to suffer injuries from a hospital you trust, and we will hold those facilities accountable for their substandard care.

Our team offers three locations with offices in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. Schedule a consultation with an attorney by calling an office location near you directly, or by requesting more information online.

About the Author
Peter DePaolis joined the firm in 1980 and has since represented a large number of individuals involved in automobile collisions, truck accidents, bus crashes, defective products, and medical malpractice cases. A significant portion of Mr. DePaolis’ practice is devoted to working on behalf of people suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related cancers. He has led his firm’s fight against the asbestos industry and has recovered over $30 million in damages for asbestos victims and their families.