Suppose you're injured while being treated at a hospital. Can you sue the hospital for medical malpractice? The short answer is: It depends on who caused your injury. Hospitals can be on the hook for negligent care provided by employees like nurses and medical technicians, but they're usually not responsible for a doctor's malpractice.
Let's take a closer look at when a hospital is (and isn't) legally responsible for negligent medical care provided by employees, doctors, and others.
As a general rule, an employer is legally responsible for its employees' on-the-job actions. This legal rule has a fancy-sounding name, "respondeat superior," meaning "let the superior answer."
Respondeat superior applies to hospital employees. In other words, if a hospital employee injures a patient by providing negligent (not reasonably careful) medical care, the hospital is probably liable, or legally responsible, for the patient's injuries.
Typically, nurses, medical technicians, and support staff are hospital employees. As long as the employee was doing something job-related when they negligently caused a patient injury, the patient usually can sue the hospital for damages.
For example, suppose a hospital-employed registered nurse (R.N.) negligently injects the wrong medication into a patient's IV, and the patient suffers an injury. The hospital is probably liable for the R.N.'s carelessness. (Learn more about nursing malpractice.)
By contrast, if a doctor makes the same mistake, negligently injecting a patient with the wrong drug, the hospital most likely isn't legally responsible. Why? Chances are the doctor isn't a hospital employee, but what the law calls an "independent contractor." We'll talk more about this below.
Things get a bit tricky when a hospital employee commits malpractice while working under a doctor's supervision. Whether an employee was working under a doctor's supervision when the negligence happened will depend, at least in part, on:
The hospital and the doctor (or more likely, their insurance companies) will fight over who had the authority to control the employee's work. Depending on the facts, either the hospital, the doctor, or both might be held legally responsible. The good news is, this isn't the patient's fight. The patient will sue both the hospital and the doctor and let their malpractice insurers sort it out.
Finally, keep in mind that not every mistake or bad outcome equals medical malpractice. Sometimes bad things happen even with the best of care. (Learn more about the elements of medical malpractice.)
The answer to that question goes a long way toward deciding whether the hospital is legally responsible when a doctor injures a hospital patient with negligent care. While some doctors are hospital employees, most are, in the eyes of the law, "independent contractors." Absent unusual circumstances, an employer (including a hospital) isn't liable for an independent contractor's negligence.
Whether a doctor is a hospital employee or an independent contractor depends on the nature of their relationship. The legal "test," so to speak, is whether the hospital has the power to control the way the doctor provides medical services, including such details as when and how those services are performed.
A doctor is more likely to be an employee (rather than an independent contractor) if:
Today, it's a common practice for hospitals to structure independent contractor relationships with medical groups. For instance, it's not unusual for a hospital's emergency department, anesthesiology, radiology, and other departments to be staffed with doctors from outside medical groups. If you're treated in a hospital and you get a separate bill for services from the doctor's office, that's a good indication that the hospital treats the doctor as an independent contractor.
There are exceptions to the general rule of non-liability for an independent contractor's negligence. Here are a couple that might apply in a hospital malpractice case.
In order to benefit from the independent contractor liability shield, a hospital must make it clear to patients that the doctor isn't an employee. Typically, hospitals include independent contractor disclosures in admission paperwork and related informed consent forms. Absent sufficient disclosures, the law might treat the doctor as an employee.
Providing the necessary disclosures can be a problem in an emergency department. When a patient arrives with a life-threatening condition or is unconscious, there's no time to waste on these details. As a result, it's more likely that an emergency department patient can sue the hospital for a doctor's negligence.
In a few states, the law says that a hospital can be sued for emergency department malpractice regardless of what the patient believed or was told. (Learn more about medical malpractice during emergencies.)
Several states hold a hospital responsible if it gives staff privileges to an incompetent or dangerous doctor, even if the doctor is an independent contractor. The hospital can also be responsible if it should have known that a previously safe doctor had become incompetent or dangerous.
Suppose, for example, that a doctor is abusing alcohol or drugs and hospital management knew about it, or it was so obvious they should have known about it. The hospital doesn't revoke the doctor's staff privileges and a patient is injured by the doctor's substandard care. The patient probably can sue both the doctor and the hospital.
Malpractice cases of any kind—including those against a hospital—are among the most difficult of all personal injury claims. States have enacted special procedural (and other) rules, and malpractice claims often involve complicated facts and legal issues. On top of all that, doctors, hospitals, and their insurers will put up a vigorous fight, often to trial and beyond.