Liability in Malpractice Lawsuits Involving EMTs and Paramedics

Who is on the hook when a patient sues for medical malpractice involving the emergency responders?

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have a tough job. Some of the most critical treatment that a patient receives occurs in the minutes after an injury or acute health crisis. That treatment can go a long way toward dictating -- either positively or negatively -- the patient's outcome. Without EMTs, surgeons would never have the opportunity to work their magic on many patients

What if an EMT makes a mistake in treating you at the scene, or what if first-responders refuse to treat you at all? Applicable laws vary by state, so whether a patient can sue an EMT or paramedic for medical malpractice may depend on where you live. In the sections that follow, we'll discuss the types of laws that affect cases for EMT malpractice as well as the types of lawsuits patients can file.

Laws Affecting EMT and Paramedic Malpractice Cases

In every medical malpractice case, the patient must prove that a defendant acted negligently. To prove medical negligence, the patient must establish a breach of a duty of care.

There are policy considerations that play a part in establishing a duty of care in cases where an EMT or paramedic may have been negligent, and states come down differently on that issue, so the standard that's in place will also differ from state to state.

The most common duty of care in these cases is the "medical standard of care." This duty requires EMTs to provide the quality of care that a similarly-skilled and knowledgeable EMT would provide in similar circumstances. Under this standard, an EMT or paramedic is liable under medical malpractice laws just as any other health care provider would be.

Another common duty of care is the "gross negligence" standard. This duty limits lawsuits to situations when the care provided by an EMT falls significantly below the level of care that a similarly-skilled EMT would provide in similar circumstances. For example, if an EMT declines to treat a patient who is suffering a severe asthma attack and is unable to breathe, that might be considered gross negligence. But if the EMT treats the patient by improperly performing a tracheotomy, that might not rise to the level of gross negligence.

Other states limit EMT malpractice lawsuits to "willful and wanton" conduct. It is particularly difficult for patients to win in these states. In order to make a successful case, a patient must essentially show that the EMT was able to provide proper care, but made a conscious choice not to. For example, an EMT might decide not to treat a patient for discriminatory reasons. That would be considered "willful and wanton" conduct, but that kind of fact pattern is very rare, and proving the defendant's mindset in these kinds of cases is challenging at best.

Who is Liable for EMS-Related Mistakes?

If a patient is injured by an EMT’s mistake, who might a lawsuit be filed against?

Imagine a person suffers a neck injury that restricts blood flow to the brain. The person’s spouse calls 911. The ambulance takes 15 minutes to arrive, which is an unusually long time. The ambulance takes the patient to the hospital, where surgery begins almost an hour after the onset of the problem. The patient survives, but with severe brain damage. According to expert medical witnesses retained by the patient's attorney, if the surgery had started within 20 minutes of the 911 call, the patient would likely have made a full recovery.

Who should the patient sue? The 911 service is owned by the county government. The ambulance service is a private organization. So, the patient could sue the EMT as an individual, the ambulance service, the hospital, the county, or several or all of the above.

Each option presents a different type of case. In a case against a county, a patient might have to get around special immunity rules that apply to government officials. In a case against the ambulance service, the patient might have to establish that the service was responsible for all of the actions of its employees.

In this case, the patient would probably sue all potential parties because it is unclear where liability actually lies. Perhaps the 911 dispatcher gave the wrong directions to the ambulance driver. Perhaps the driver just got lost. Perhaps the hospital was unreasonably slow to prep for the surgery. Those are issues that would be sorted out over the course of the lawsuit process.

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