Can I Sue a Hospital vs. Suing the Doctor for Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is a frightening reality for thousands of injured patients around the world. Despite more accurate medicine due to advanced technologies, physicians, doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other health care practitioners are only human. This means mistakes, errors, and negligence. When someone else’s preventable error causes injury or death in a hospital setting, the injured party or his or her family may be able to recover damages. Understand when it’s possible to sue the doctor versus suing the hospital to better grasp your potential case.

Employee vs. Independent Contractor

Medical malpractice happens more often than most patients would like to believe. Between 2005 and 2015, plaintiffs brought 409,088 adverse actions for medical malpractice against defendants in the United States. In the same decade, there were 11,986 medical malpractice actions in Missouri alone. Medical malpractice can be surgical errors, anesthesia errors, misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis, childbirth injuries, or medication errors. Medical malpractice can result in a worsened prognosis, severe injury, and death.

While a hospital is responsible for the actions of its employees, the facility may not be liable for mistakes made by its doctors. If a hospital employee is negligent, the courts will generally hold the hospital responsible for resulting injuries. Employees may include the nursing staff, medical technicians, and maintenance crew. When an employee causes a patient injury while doing something job related, the patient could most likely sue the hospital and not just the individual directly responsible for the mistake.

If, however, an “employee” of the hospital is technically an independent contractor, the injured patient may not have the right to sue the hospital. Instead, the plaintiff can only take the person who made the mistake to court. In most cases, a doctor is not an employee of the hospital. He or she is an independent contractor, meaning the doctor self-employs. A doctor may be an employee if the hospital controls his or her vacation times and working hours. When a doctor is not a legal employee, the courts cannot hold the hospital responsible for the doctor’s actions – even if the doctor is officially affiliated with the hospital.

Non-Employee Liability

There are exceptions to the rule of a plaintiff only being able to bring a claim against an individual doctor for medical malpractice. In certain situations, the courts may hold the hospital liable for injuries despite the employment status of the doctor. If the patient is under the impression that the doctor is an employee because the hospital does not make it clear otherwise, the patient may be able to sue the hospital. Most hospitals avoid this liability by writing the status of the doctor on the patient admission form.

In the emergency room, patients have an increased chance of suing the hospital because there’s often no time to inform patients that a doctor is not an employee.

The injured party may be able to sue the hospital regardless of the doctor’s employment status if the hospital has negligent hiring, training, or retention practices that lead to the doctor’s mistake. If, for example, the hospital neglected to fire a doctor who routinely showed up to work intoxicated, and the doctor’s intoxication caused a patient injury, the hospital will likely face liability. In these cases, the hospital is indirectly at fault for failing to ensure the care of its patients by keeping a known negligent doctor on staff.

Medical malpractice cases are complex, and it’s often difficult to determine fault. If you believe you have grounds for a lawsuit in Missouri, speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Your attorney can help you understand whether you have the right to sue the individual doctor, hospital, a third party, or a combination of defendants.