Can you Sue a Hospital for Wrongful Death?


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When someone dies while in the care of a hospital for medical treatment, is their family able to sue for wrongful death? The answer is, sometimes. It depends on who is responsible for the death of their loved one – a doctor, nurse, or another medical professional. Hospitals are liable for negligence that is committed by their employees, but the hospital itself isn’t always responsible for that negligence that happens in the treatment setting. 

Often, hospitals or other medical facilities are accountable for medical negligence (including wrongful death) when a patient receives incompetent care from facility employees, like medical technicians and nurses. However, they are not typically responsible for medical malpractice committed by doctors. 

Hospitals are Liable for Staff Negligence 

Medical facilities are usually held responsible when a patient dies due to an employee of the facility behaving incompetently, and the family of the deceased may have a wrongful death lawsuit. However, it’s important to remember that not all negative medical outcomes are the result of negligence. Sometimes adverse consequences, including death, occur through the fault of no one. 

But, when a death occurs in a hospital that can be proven to be wrongful, if the person responsible is a hospital employee, then the facility is liable. Typically, medical staff like nurses, technicians, and support people are hospital employees. If one of those staff members causes injury or death to a patient while performing job-related duties, the patient or his or her family can bring a claim against the hospital. For example, if a nurse, employed by the hospital, injects a patient with the wrong dosage of medication and it causes harm to the patient, the hospital will likely be found liable for the error. 

The situation may be different though, when a doctor commits medical malpractice and injures or causes the death of a patient. In those cases, it is typically the doctor who is found to be liable, not the hospital (unless it is concluded that the doctor is an employee of the hospital). 

Additionally, when a medical professional is to blame for a medical mistake while being supervised by a physician, the patient or his or her family can sue the doctor, but the hospital may not be found liable. Determining if a medical staff member was under the supervision of a doctor when the mistake or negligence happened depends on the following: 

  • whether the doctor was in attendance
  • whether the doctor had the ability to prevent the mistake or negligence

For example, the doctor performing surgery on a patient may be liable when the attending surgical nurse miscounts medical instruments, leading to one being left in the patient after surgery. 

When Is a Doctor a Hospital Employee? 

Determining whether a doctor is an employee of the hospital is crucial when trying to figure out if a hospital can be sued for wrongful death. It depends on the relationship between the doctor and the facility. While some doctors are employees of hospitals, most aren’t. Those that are not are considered to be independent contractors, meaning that the hospital cannot be held liable when the doctor commits malpractice. 

To determine if a doctor is an independent contractor or a hospital employee, there are a couple of things to look at. If the hospital is in charge of the hours that a doctor works and his or her vacation time or the hospital determines the fees the doctor charges, then it’s likely that the doctor is an employee of the hospital. 

When Are Hospitals Responsible for Non-Employee Physicians’ Malpractice? 

There are some exceptions to the above. In these situations, hospitals can be held responsible for wrongful deaths caused by doctors who are considered independent contractors. These situations include: 

  • When the hospital retains an incompetent doctor on its staff. When a hospital gives a doctor privileges, even though it is known that the doctor has been deemed unsafe or incompetent, it can be held liable. 
  • When it appears that the doctor is the hospital’s employee. If hospitals do not make it apparent that a doctor is not an employee, but rather an independent contractor, the hospital can be sued for the doctor’s negligence. Most hospitals avoid this by clarifying the doctor-hospital relationship in admissions paperwork. 

Getting Help for Your Wrongful Death Case 

If you have lost a loved one while he or she was being treated in a hospital, and you suspect that it was due to hospital or doctor negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your loss. Wrongful death lawsuits involving medical malpractice can be complicated, so it is important that you seek the help of an experienced wrongful death attorney. 

Ross Feller Casey is among the nation’s preeminent law firms handling all types of medical malpractice cases, including wrongful death lawsuits. We have seasoned wrongful death attorneys, medical doctors on staff to review the medical records in your case, and the resources to pursue litigation. Please contact our office today to schedule your free case evaluation. 

About the Author

With more than 20 years of experience as a physician, Dr. Gerald B. Parker brings a unique perspective as a Philadelphia doctor-lawyer to Ross Feller Casey.

Gerald Parker, III

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