Do Inpatient Falls Constitute Medical Malpractice?

Your fall injury case may be governed by principles of malpractice or ordinary negligence.

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:

  • medical malpractice, or
  • ordinary negligence.

When a Fall Could Be the Result of Malpractice

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:

  • Polypharmacy: The patient’s fall was caused by polypharmacy (multiple medications were prescribed to the patient at one time, and their side effects made the patient unsteady, resulting in a fall).
  • Failure to diagnose, or misdiagnosis: A doctor fails to recognize that a patient has suffered a stroke or other debilitating episode that results in confusion and/or limited mobility. The patient is placed in a bed without adequate rails, or is left unattended, and the patient falls as a result.
  • Failure to assess a patient as being at high risk for falling: despite the presence of factors such as arthritis or dehydration, or despite complaints of dizziness or lightheadedness, the facility fails to provide proper assistance or otherwise take adequate steps to prevent a fall from occurring.

When a Fall Could Be the Result of Ordinary Negligence

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.

Malpractice Versus Negligence

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:

  • the appropriate standard of care under the circumstances (what the doctor or facility should have done in treating or assisting the injured person)
  • causation (exactly how the doctor or care facility failed to provide adequate treatment), and
  • damages (exactly how the patient was harmed or their condition made worse as a result of the fall).

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.

Let an Attorney Decide

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.

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