In Massachusetts, as in many other states, medical malpractice suits follow the doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine holds that employers are responsible for the wrongful acts of their employees while their employees are doing the employers’ bidding. Basically, an employer cannot escape liability for a wrongful act caused by one of their employees, as long as the act was performed within the scope of the employment.
In medical malpractice, this comes in to play most commonly in a hospital environment. When you are injured while in the care of a hospital, finding out who owes you compensation may be more difficult than you think. After all, who are the employees of the hospital? Thousands of people walk in and out of most hospitals each day to report for work but that does not necessarily mean they are employed by the hospital. Due to a recent decision, hospitals in Massachusetts may find themselves responsible for the actions of a doctor even when that doctor was never their employee.
In the case, Ms. Beauregard was admitted for surgery at Metrowest Medical Center in October of 2011. Her attending physician was Dr. Peebles. Prior to surgery Dr. Peebles administered an epidural into her spine for pain control. Another doctor removed Ms. Beauregard’s epidural after the operation was complete. About five hours after the epidural was removed, Ms. Beauregard discovered that she had lost feeling in both of her legs and could no longer move them. Unfortunately, she never regained that ability. After hiring a malpractice attorney, she sued both Dr. Peebles and Metrowest Medical Center. The hospital attempted to have the case against them dismissed stating that Dr. Peebles was only an employee of Metrowest Anesthesiology, Inc., and not an employee of the Medical Center. The judge quickly dismissed the hospital’s motion and ruled that despite their claim, the hospital could be held liable for Ms. Beauregard’s injury.
While this is a slight change to traditional medical malpractice liability, it is not necessarily a novel decision. It has been a tenant of respondeat superior since the beginning that a person can be considered an employee of another if that person “holds themselves out to be” an employee of another. This is sometimes called the “apparent authority” or agency approach to liability. Basically, if someone reasonably believes them to be an employee then they might be considered an employee. The judge in this case used that logic, as well as the following information, to find that the hospital could be held liable for this “non-employee’s” actions.
- When the surgery occurred Dr. Peebles was the Hospital’s Chief of Anesthesiology; he spent about 20% of his time doing only administrative matters for this position.
- Dr. Peebles wore a white lab coat with the hospital’s insignia on it.
- In addition, Ms. Beauregard only saw Dr. Peebles at the recommendation of her surgeon; she did not seek him out independently.
- The consent form signed by Ms. Beauregard did not explicitly state that Dr. Peebles was not an employee.
For these reasons, the judge determined that it was reasonable for Ms. Beauregard to believe that Dr. Peebles was an employee of the hospital.