Hospital Negligence – Are Hospitals Liable For Independent Doctors?


Among court cases recently decided about hospital negligence is this case involving a medical malpractice claim against a hospital for actions of emergency room doctors who are independent contractors.

The Nevada Supreme Court considered several legal theories and concluded that the hospital would not be liable under one theory of law, but would be liable under another theory of law.

In this case, Christopher Wall, a minor child, was taken by his mother, Betty Vanderford, to the hospital, Renown Health, Inc., several times and each time there appeared to be a misdiagnosis. Ms. Vanderford took Christopher to Renown’s emergency room for a fourth time after she found him unconscious in the bathroom. That time, he was diagnosed with basilar meningitis and complications including abscesses. As a result of his illness, Christopher suffered permanent, debilitating injuries, including brain damage.

Ms. Vanderford sued Renown in her individual capacity and on behalf of Christopher. The district court granted partial summary judgment for Vanderford, finding that Renown owed Christopher an absolute nondelegable duty such that it was liable for the negligent acts of the emergency room doctors, who were independent contractors.

Generally, hospital negligence involves doctors and staff members who are directly employed by the hospital and hospitals are not vicariously liable for the acts of independent contractor doctors. However, there are exceptions.

An absolute nondelegable duty is essentially a strict liability concept, where, despite delegation of a duty to an independent contractor (emergency room doctors), the principal (hospital) remains primarily responsible for improper performance.

In addition to an absolute nondelegable duty, there can be a nonabsolute nondelegable duty also called an “ostensible agency.” For this type of duty, the injured patient must show that the hospital held itself out to the public by providing services, that the patient looked to the hospital and not an individual doctor for care, and that a patient in similar circumstances would reasonably have believed that the physician was a hospital employee.

In this case, Vanderford and Christopher entrusted themselves to Renown by going to its emergency room. They did not choose a doctor for Christopher, but were subject to the choice by Renown, as is the case in most emergency room scenarios.

Whether it is called a nonabsolute nondelegable duty or “ostensible agency”, the result remains the same: hospitals may be held liable for the acts of independent contractor emergency room doctors if the hospital selects the doctor and it is reasonable for the patient to assume that the doctor is an agent of the hospital.

The Nevada Supreme Court concluded that Renown was right. Hospitals do not have an absolute nondelegable duty to provide nonnegligent medical care to emergency room patients through doctors who are independent contractors. However, the court also concluded that Renown was also wrong. Hospitals (Renown in this case) may be held liable for the acts of its independent contractor emergency room doctors under the doctrine of “ostensible agency.”

The most important thing for people to remember about this case is that, if they think that they may have been the victim of hospital negligence, but the hospital asserts that the doctors were independent contractors, don’t give up. Talk with a lawyer. The hospital may still be liable.

For details, see
Renown Health v. Vanderford July 1, 2010. Legal reference: 235 P.3d 614 (2010)

The above is general information only. If you have any questions whatsoever, talk with a lawyer licensed in your state.

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