Hospital Liability for Staff/Employee Errors

Hospital administration's negligence might prompt a lawsuit, and the facility might be liable for treatment mistakes made by employees.

The types of negligence that can lead to patient harm in the hospital setting cover most of the medical malpractice spectrum, from physician malpractice to nursing malpractice to malpractice by a physical or occupational therapist. Hospital administration itself can also be liable when a patient's condition is made worse by failure to maintain a reasonably safe environment.

Hospital liability can usually be divided into two main types:

  • Liability for the negligence of hospital employees, in line with the personal injury law concept of vicarious liability, which says that employers (including hospitals) can be held liable for employees' negligence. So, a hospital can be responsible for medical malpractice committed by a physician, nurse, or other health care professional employed by the hospital.
  • Hospital liability for harm resulting from the facility administration's own mistakes, such as negligence in hiring and supervising employees, and failing to maintain and repair equipment.

Let's take a closer look at these kinds of liability.

Hospital Liability for Negligence of Employees

While many health care providers who work in hospitals are independent contractors (i.e., not direct employees of the hospital), some are full- or part-time hospital employees. Because the hospital is liable for the negligence of its employees, a patient harmed by the medical malpractice of an employee doctor or other health care professional would be entitled to sue both the hospital and the individual employee.

Physicians

Most cases of physician negligence fall into one of the following categories:

Physicians are more often not hospital employees but independent contractors who work at (but not for) the hospital, so some investigation may be necessary (more on this below).

Nurses

There are many tasks that nurses perform related to a patient's treatment, and if the nurse's conduct falls below the applicable medical standard of care, a malpractice claim might be possible.

A nurse can:

  • fail to monitor a patient properly
  • fail to take a patient's vital signs at the proper times
  • forget to take an important vital sign
  • fail to enter the patient's nursing record into the patient's chart
  • administer the wrong type of medication
  • administer the wrong amount of medication
  • administer the medication at the wrong time
  • fail to check a patient for bed sores
  • fail to respond to a patient's call quickly enough
  • fail to report suspicious symptoms and complaints to the physician in charge.

Any one of these mistakes can constitute negligence. If the nurse is an employee of the hospital, the nurse's negligence is extended to the hospital.

Therapists

Therapists—whether they be physical, occupational, or mental health therapists— can also be negligent. For example, a physical therapist might fail to follow a physician's instructions properly, or might manipulate a patient's injured limb too aggressively, re-breaking a bone or re-tearing a ligament or tendon that the patient was supposed to be rehabilitating.

Hospital Liability for Negligence of Independent Contractors

What if the negligent doctor, nurse, or therapist was an independent contractor and not an employee of the hospital? Is the hospital still vicariously liable for that health care provider's negligence?

This is a complicated issue that depends on your state's law, but in general the courts will look at factors like:

  • the precise terms of the employment arrangement between the hospital and the health care provider
  • exactly how much control the hospital had over the health care provider's job conditions and performance, and
  • how the provider was paid.

As a general rule, the more control that an employer has over the performance of a supposedly independent contractor, the more likely it is that a court might find that the independent contractor was actually an employee.

The Hospital's Own Negligence

Direct hospital negligence can include the hospital's negligence in hiring and supervising its employees, in maintaining and repairing equipment, and in any other area overseen by hospital management.

Hospital negligence includes the following types of issues:

  • negligent hiring of employees (such as failing to verify that its health care providers are properly licensed)
  • failure to ensure that its employee health care providers stay up to date on their licensing requirements, such as continuing medical education
  • failure to terminate incompetent, unlicensed, or unsafe employees
  • failure to establish proper patient safety protocols for issues like hand washing, sanitation, preventing patient falls, patient safety, and keeping up with new medical developments
  • understaffing of medical and/or nursing staff
  • mislabeling medication, and
  • violating patient confidentiality by losing or mishandling patient records.

Learn more about suing a hospital for medical malpractice.

Establishing liability in any medical malpractice case is a challenge, and the procedural rules in these kinds of lawsuits can be fairly complex, so if you think you've been harmed by the medical negligence of a hospital or a member of its staff, it may be a good idea to discuss your situation with a medical malpractice attorney.

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