It is not uncommon for a patient to fall and suffer an injury while being treated in a hospital. Even people who are just visiting a hospital can sometimes fall due to an unsafe property condition or other hazard. These falls can lead to lawsuits, since the resulting injuries are often serious. But do falls in a hospital always constitute medical malpractice? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances surrounding the fall, and what caused it.
In almost every situation where someone falls in a hospital, any lawsuit filed over the incident will be governed by one of two legal concepts:
In order for a fall to be considered the result of medical malpractice, the person who was injured typically must have been receiving treatment in the course of a doctor-patient relationship at the time the fall occurred, or at least at the time of the occurrence of the harmful act that led to the fall.
What’s more, a doctor, the health care facility, or some other care provider must have provided treatment that fell short of the appropriate medical standard of care under the circumstances, and that sub-standard care must have played a part in causing the patient to fall.
Let’s look at some examples to get a better idea of how this might play out in the real world.
Examples of an inpatient fall that could constitute medical malpractice:
Just as in any other situation where someone slips or trips and falls because of unsafe conditions -- in a store, on the sidewalk, or while visiting a neighbor’s house, for example -- a patient could be injured through a fall on hospital property.
In order for principles of ordinary negligence to apply, the fall would probably have to be unrelated to the patient’s condition and the course of their treatment. For example, if the patient is admitted for a broken finger, and while walking to the restroom she slips and falls on a puddle of water that has accumulated under a leaky ceiling panel, any resulting injury lawsuit would probably be of the standard “slip and fall” variety. Learn more about Slip and Fall Claims and Premises Liability.
The distinction between the two kinds of claims matters most in terms of what you need to prove. A medical malpractice case can get pretty complicated pretty quickly. You will likely need a qualified medical expert witness to offer a detailed opinion as to:
By contrast, in an ordinary negligence case, an expert isn’t usually necessary. Proof of liability is limited to what was reasonable under the circumstances in terms of the facility’s duty to properly maintain the hospital and otherwise keep the premises safe from slip and fall hazards.
Whether you are bringing a medical malpractice case or a negligence case may also have an effect on the amount of compensation you can receive. Some states have “caps” or limits on how much can be awarded to a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case. (Learn more: State-by-State Medical Malpractice Damages Caps.) No such caps exist in any state if you are pursuing a lawsuit under traditional negligence principles.
If you’ve suffered an injury after falling in a hospital -- especially if you were being treated as a patient at the time -- don’t spend your time and energy trying to decide whether your case will be governed by medical malpractice or ordinary negligence. Talk to an experienced attorney about your case and how the accident occurred, and get a full explanation of your legal options.