Can a Hospital Be Held Liable for a Patient's Wrongful Death?

Family of the wrongfully deceased can sue the hospital as well as the negligent doctor - but it's not always the right tactic.

If a person dies as the result of the medical malpractice of a hospital, his/her estate can bring what is called a wrongful death lawsuit. A state's wrongful death laws allow the person's estate to sue the hospital and be awarded damages for the beneficiaries of the deceased.

When Is a Hospital Liable for Wrongful Death?

A hospital can be liable in many different ways for a patient's death. The two most common ways are the following:

  • the negligence of physicians, nurses, and other health care providers who are employed by the hospital, and
  • the hospital's own negligence in hiring and supervising its employees, maintaining and repairing its equipment, and managing and overseeing the medical care at the hospital.

Liability for the Negligence of Independent Contractors

A hospital is generally not legally liable for the negligence of physicians who simply saw a patient at the hospital or who performed an operation at the hospital, but were not employees of the hospital.

Physicians and nurses are generally considered to be independent contractors, and so, unless they are the hospital's employees, the hospital is usually not responsible for their medical negligence.

Determining whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor is a complex legal issue that involves looking at things like the employment contract between the doctor and the hospital and how much control the hospital had over the doctor's job conditions and performance.

As a general rule, the more control that an employer has over the performance of a physician who claims to be an independent contractor, the more likely it is that a court might find that the physician was actually an employee. Because this is such a complex issue, you should get advice as to the law on this issue in your state from a lawyer with related experience.

Negligence of Physicians Employed by the Hospital

Most types of physician negligence fall into the following main categories:

If a physician who worked for the hospital was negligent in any way, and that physician's negligence caused the patient's death, the hospital would be liable for the patient's wrongful death.

Malpractice of Hospital Nurses

Nurses owe patients an independent professional duty of care and can commit malpractice just like a physician can. Nurses perform many different types of tasks that are related to a patient's treatment. Serious nursing mistakes have been known to cause the wrongful death of a patient. Some of the most significant types of nursing errors are:

  • failure to monitor a patient's vital signs properly
  • failure to properly enter the patient's nursing record into the patient's chart
  • administering the wrong type or wrong amount of medication
  • administering the medication at the wrong time
  • failure to check a patient for bed sores, and
  • failure to report suspicious symptoms and complaints to the physician in charge.

Should I Sue the Hospital When the Doctor Was Negligent?

A hospital may be legally liable for a doctor's negligence and patient's wrongful death, but is it really necessary to sue the hospital and the doctor? The decision whether to sue the hospital - in addition to the doctor - for the doctor's negligence is more of a tactical than a legal decision.

In most cases, your lawyer will make that decision based on the amount of the malpractice insurance coverage he or she carries. If the doctor has enough malpractice coverage, then your lawyer may very well not sue the hospital. The reason for this is that you don't want to have to face any more defense attorneys than you have to.

If you sue the hospital and the doctor, the insurance company will appoint separate lawyers for the doctor and the hospital. That means that there will be two, not one, defense attorneys thinking about how to beat you. You don't want that. You only want to deal with one defense attorney, not two, if you possibly can help it.

The Hospital's Own Negligence

The hospital can also be negligent in its own actions. Many different types of hospital negligence can cause the wrongful death of a patient. Some of the ways in which a hospital can be negligent include:

  • failing to verify that its health care providers are competent, safe, and properly licensed
  • failing to fire incompetent, unlicensed, or unsafe employees
  • failure to establish proper patient safety protocols for issues like hand washing, sanitation, labeling and administration of patient medication, preventing patient falls, and
  • patient safety, among other things, and
  • understaffing of medical and/or nursing staff.
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