Malpractice in the Emergency Room

closeup image of surgical mask, stethoscope, and gloves

The laws and restrictions surrounding medical malpractice claims are often very difficult to navigate, but a Boca Raton personal injury attorney can help. One question that comes up frequently is the issue of how medical malpractice works in the context of emergency services, or the emergency room environment. While there are some complex issues at work, it can help to have a working definition of the basics of medical malpractice during emergencies; if you feel that the medical professionals that treated you in your emergency acted are responsible for an illness or injury that you or a loved one has suffered, then the first step in deciding whether or not to file a claim is to understand what circumstances entitle you to pursue compensation.

Most states have at least one statute that protects “first responders” to medical emergencies; these statutes include under their umbrella ambulance crews, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, and the statutes exist mostly to preserve emergency services, which potentially would be subject to frequent lawsuits otherwise. However, this does not mean that first responders are completely protected from malpractice; ultimately, if a first responder does something that is totally reckless or blatantly negligent, or intentional, he or she could be liable for malpractice. For example, refusing to even attempt to stabilize a patient in as much as it is possible to do so, or not administering the correct emergency treatment for a common problem within the scope of their training, could be considered malpractice.

The protections provided to first responders are not extended to emergency room personnel; in the emergency room, standard medical malpractice rules apply to doctors, nurses, and other medical staff working in the room. Since this is the case, the patient still must demonstrate that a competent doctor under the same circumstances would not have made the mistake; the condition of being under the same circumstances is the important distinction. The emergency room does not allow for lengthy consideration, which means that mistakes leading to malpractice claims must be fairly severe in order to meet the standard. Usually in these cases—like in many others—both sides will hire experts to testify on the subject of what the standard of care would be in the situation.

Another important complication is that, unlike in non-emergency contexts, hospitals are frequently sued for emergency room malpractice complaints. In the normal order of things, a hospital is often not the actual employer of the physician, and typically hospitals take great pains to ensure that each patient is advised of this fact. In an emergency room context, the patient is going to the ER, and not a particular doctor, and the hospital usually does not have the opportunity to inform the patient that the attending doctor is an independent contractor. There are also a few state-level laws that allow a hospital to be sued for emergency room malpractice even if the patient believed or was told that the doctor was a contractor.

It is also important to keep in mind that a doctor who is off duty, who has no prior relationship with the patient, may be considered to be acting as a “Good Samaritan” if he or she renders assistance in an emergency situation. This means that the law protects them to some degree; while good Samaritan rules require that a bystander assist in a way that isn’t reckless, it does apply a certain amount of protection for any issues that may result from the assistance. Also keep in mind that any hospital that receives Medicare funding is required by the rules of a federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires that the emergency room cannot turn anyone away, regardless of the person’s ability to pay. The emergency room must instead provide a medical screening of the injured person and stabilize him or her to the extent possible. A violation to these rules can lead to financial liability similar to medical malpractice damages.

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