How Vicarious Liability Works in Medical Negligence Cases

A patient's care is usually the responsibility of more than one doctor; it takes a whole team of healthcare professionals to treat patients. For example, an emergency medical technician (EMT) might bring a patient into a surgeon who orders a nurse to take an x-ray. But there is one more entity responsible for patient care: the health care facility itself.

Doctors and healthcare professionals used to all work directly for healthcare facilities. Today, many healthcare workers are employed as private contractors through healthcare facilities, not directly for the facilities. This shift changed the entity held responsible if a patient got injured. As the industry has changed and more and more healthcare professionals started working as independent contractors laws also changed to allow the healthcare facilities employing private contractors to be held liable for the employee's action.

Healthcare facilities, like hospitals, can be held liable for the actions of its employees, but each case is circumstantial. Not all doctor negligence is the responsibility of the healthcare facility; only a qualified health care professional with independent privileges to admit and treat patients who make an error may be responsible for their own actions. If the facility holds responsibility for the health care professional, it might also hold responsibility for any injuries that professional causes.

When Healthcare Facilities are Liable for Medical Malpractice in Maryland

All healthcare facilities are required to meet certain standards and provide certain services to patients. These facilities are held liable for important basic needs like having clean, functional facilities and enough health care professionals to staff the facilities. Healthcare facilities also have “vicarious liability” which makes them indirectly responsible for the actions of the workers they employ. These facilities also have a “corporate liability” to maintain competent workers who have received the proper education and training, and who retain the proper credentials for practicing medicine.

The legal doctrine respondeat superior holds employers responsible for the actions of their employees that they are able to control. Translated literally, the doctrine means “let the master answer”. Though sometimes the employer may be found at fault for failing to train, supervise, or monitor an employee who committed negligence, liability in these cases is not always necessarily based on any wrongdoings of the employer.

A healthcare facility can be held liable for the negligent actions of fully qualified and competent healthcare professionals, for errors like:

  • Misdiagnosis
  • Surgical mistake
  • Failing to properly monitor a patient
  • Medication errors including failing to administer, wrong dosage, and untimely administration
  • Failing to report symptoms
  • Failing to follow-up with a patient

The main purpose of respondeat superior is to share the cost of litigation with both the employers and employees.

For employers to be held liable, there must be an established employer-employee relationship. This relationship is established when an employer has the “right of control” over an employee. For doctors, this means that the employer has the right to control the doctor's method of evaluating a patient, admitting a patient, or providing services to a patient. If the employer does not have this control, then the employer cannot be held liable for negligence committed by the doctor.

Some healthcare facilities, including government-owned facilities, may not follow the same liability rules under respondeat superior.

Respondeat Superior Cases

For employers to be held responsible for negligent actions of their employees, the negligence must have occurred within the “scope of employment,” which means that the negligence must have occurred when:

  1. The employee was “on the clock” or currently working, and
  2. The injury was the result of an action that the employee was hired to perform, and
  3. The employer had an invested interested in the activity that the employee had performed that caused the injury.

Generally, employers may be held liable for most injuries that occur when the healthcare professional is working. If the healthcare professional provides negligent or inappropriate care to a patient outside of the scope of the healthcare facility, as an independent contractor, provide care during hours the facility is not in operation, or provides care for personal profit, the employer may not be liable for injuries.

Vagueness in a doctor's contract can also lead to vicarious liability claims for the employer. If a healthcare facility failed to make a doctor's terms of employment clear, even if the doctor was intended to work only as an independent contractor, the healthcare facility can be held liable for injuries to a patient. In particular, emergency care workers are usually employed as independent contractors. Though hospitals often work hard to legally separate themselves from independent contractors like emergency care workers, the hospitals can still sometimes be held liable for negligent or incompetent actions of these workers.

Employers can be held liable for an employee's failure to:

  • Properly train employees
  • Verify an employee's credentials or for negligently hiring employees
  • Make sure that employees maintain credentials
  • Supervise employees
  • Prevent medication errors like mislabeling
  • Address problems with employees in a timely manner
  • Dismiss employees with problems in the past
  • Maintain a proper number of medical staff
  • Protect patient confidentiality

In previous cases, doctors accused of negligence for leaving an object in a patient were found not liable for injuries because the members of the surgical team that left the object were not under the employment of the doctor, but of the hospital.

Luring Patients

More and more hospitals are marketing themselves to patients to entice patients to visit one hospital or healthcare facility instead of another. If a health care facility like a hospital uses advertisements like short wait times, lower fees, or “top notch care” claims to lure a patient to visit, and the patient does not get the kind of care advertised and suffers a negligent injury, the hospital can be held liable.

Vicarious Liability and Doctors

Doctors can also be held accountable for vicarious liability for healthcare professionals who were working under the supervision of the doctor. If a doctor leaves a patient with an untrained nurse, a medical student, or any other healthcare professional who fails to provide the standard of care, the doctor can be held liable for resulting injuries to the patient.

Defenses for Vicarious Liability

Doctors or healthcare facilities that are on trial for a malpractice case will try to show that the negligent or incompetent employee did not actually work as an "employee" of the facility. Health care facilities will try to distance themselves from the negligent acts of health care professionals by claiming the professional was an independent contractor or that their work was not affiliated with the facility.

Maryland Medical Malpractice Attorney

If you or a loved one has suffered a serious injury as a result of negligent or incompetent health care professional, you need an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Call our offices today at (800) 529-6162 to speak with an attorney and to begin your case.

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