Medical Malpractice Liability for Hospital-Acquired Infection

If an inpatient suffers harm from an infection, the hospital could face a medical malpractice lawsuit.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Hospital-acquired infections are not uncommon, and when treated properly (and quickly) they may not be all that dangerous to a patient. But when an infection goes undiagnosed or untreated for too long, conditions like sepsis and septic shock can result.

That's a big reason why hospitals and other care facilities follow stringent protocols when it comes to sterility and cleanliness of the treatment environment—and why failure to follow safe practices can lead to a medical malpractice case when a patient suffers infection-related harm.

What Is Hospital-Acquired Infection?

Hospital acquired infection (HAI) is defined as an infection that occurs in a hospital patient and is not associated with the patient's admitted diagnosis or health issue. In terms of time frames, if an infection occurs 48 hours after hospital admittance, it is likely an HAI. Given the wide array of bacteria found in a hospital or other clinical setting, combined with the often-diminished immune capacity of a hospital patient, the likelihood of acquiring an infection is increased in certain hospital settings and treatment scenarios. Learn more about Healthcare-Associated infections from the CDC.

How Are Infections Acquired In a Hospital?

An infection is generally acquired in a hospital in three ways, based on three different "risk factors."

Patient Risk Factors

Patient risk factors include the duration of the patient's stay in a clinical setting, the severity of the illness or injury for which the patient was admitted, and the function and capacity of their immune system during their visit.

Organizational Risk Factors

These include the cleanliness of the hospital and treatment setting in general, including the filtration of the HVAC system, concentration of patient beds, cleanliness of water systems, cleanliness of building surfaces, and sterility of medical devices.

Iatrogenic Risk Factors

Iatrogenic risk factors include the care with which the doctors, hospital staff, nurses and other care providers perform. This includes the frequency with which hands are washed, use of antibiotics, and especially care used during invasive procedures such as intravenous administration of medication, intubation, and urine catheterization. Learn more about a hospital's liability for errors by staff.

Because it's so difficult to show exactly how the infection was transmitted—only that it occurred while the inpatient was admitted—the hospital itself is the most likely to be held responsible.

Symptoms and Dangers of Sepsis

The symptoms of sepsis stemming from an acquired infection are general, body-wide inflammation, elevated heart rate, elevated respiratory rate, fever, and elevated white blood cell count (also referred to as leukocytosis).

If an infection goes untreated and is allowed to escalate into sepsis, the potential for serious injury is substantial. Sepsis can lead to severe injury and damage to internal organs, and can even result in death. Mortality rates for sepsis range from 20% to 40%, and it is one of the major causes of death following treatment in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Hospital Liability for Sepsis or Septic Shock Injury or Death

Determining liability for injuries or death resulting from HAI and sepsis can be very challenging from a legal perspective, and requires an investigation into the specific circumstances of how the infection was acquired, why it was not promptly treated, and whether it could or should have been prevented.

Where hospitals are involved, it isn't always clear who is liable for the patient's infection, and if a doctor seems to be the one responsible, the hospital may not be on the legal hook if the doctor was actually an independent contractor as opposed to an employee.

Is There a Case for Hospital-Acquired Infection?

In order to bring a successful medical malpractice lawsuit over HAI and sepsis, the defendant's liability will need to be established, usually by a qualified expert medical witness who examines the treatment situation and determines if there was compliance with the appropriate medical standard of care at every turn. If it is found that the infection was preventable, and that it occurred due to the negligence of a medical professional, then a lawsuit has a chance of success, and compensation for the following kinds of losses ("damages") might be possible:

  • cost of medical care to treat the infection
  • lost income, and
  • pain and suffering and other subjective impacts of the infection.

But proving a hospital's liability for patient infection can be a big challenge. To learn more about your options and the strengths and weaknesses of your potential case, it might be a good idea to connect with a medical malpractice lawyer in your area. Use the chat feature and other tools right on this page to reach out now, or learn more about finding the right medical malpractice lawyer.

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