Suing a Pennsylvania Hospital for Corporate Negligence
By: James P. Goslee, Esq. & Frances R. McDermott, Esq.
Feb 2, 2024
Medical malpractice cases can be challenging, and the stakes are often high. When medical providers are negligent, patients can suffer catastrophic injuries that carry a lifetime of pain and suffering, not to mention enormous financial loss. Often, injured patients will look to sue the negligent doctor who caused their injury. When a negligent doctor is working in a hospital, the hospital itself can be held liable as well under a theory of vicarious negligence.
But sometimes injuries are not just the result of a one-time mistake by a physician. Sometimes hospital injuries can be the result of systemic corporate negligence by the hospital itself. In these cases, under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff can file a claim of “corporate” or “direct” negligence against the hospital itself, rather than just simply suing the negligent doctor.
Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice – Corporate Negligence
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court first recognized a medical entity’s direct liability for medical negligence, based on a theory of corporate negligence, in a case captioned Thompson v. Nason Hospital, 591 A.2d 703 (Pa. 1980). The Court in Thompson recognized that a hospital has a duty to:
(1) use reasonable care in the maintenance of safe and adequate facilities and equipment;
(2) select and retain competent physicians;
(3) oversee all persons who practice medicine within the hospital’s walls; and
(4) formulate, adopt and enforce adequate rules and policies to ensure quality patient care.
If a hospital breached one or more of these duties, the hospital can be held directly liable (as opposed to only being held vicariously liable for the negligent acts or omissions of its employees, agents or ostensible agents).
The theory of “corporate negligence,” sometimes also referred to as “direct” or “systemic” negligence, is not just applicable against hospitals. Indeed, in the years since Thompson v. Nason, Pennsylvania Courts have expanded the theory, permitting lawsuits against various non-hospital entities for their systemic negligence.
The corporate negligence theory of liability announced in Thompson v. Nason Hospital was explicitly extended to health maintenance organizations (HMOs) in 1998 in a case called Shannon v. McNulty, 718 A.2d 828 (Pa. Super. 1998). Then, in 2009, the Pennsylvania Superior Court determined that a medical professional corporation could be held directly liable for corporate negligence in a case called Hyrcza v. West Penn Allegheny Health Sys., 978 A.2d 961 (Pa. Super. 2009).
The most recent Supreme Court case addressing corporate negligence in a healthcare setting is Scampone v. Highland Park Care Center, 57 A.3d 582 (Pa. 2012). In Scampone, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made clear that imposing liability for corporate negligence in a healthcare setting is not limited to hospitals and/or HMOs. Rather, the Supreme Court in Scampone stated:
[A] defendant is not categorically exempt from liability simply because appellate decisional law has not specifically addressed a theory of liability in a particular context. Categorical exemptions from liability exist … only where the General Assembly has acted to create explicit policy-based immunities, e.g., to protect the public purse. Where either no immunity exists, or the legislative branch created exceptions to an immunity legislatively conferred, the default rule of possible liability operates.
Filing A Claim for Corporate Negligence Against a Pennsylvania Hospital
A claim for corporate negligence against a hospital is considered a medical malpractice claim. Thus, like any medical malpractice case in Pennsylvania, a plaintiff bringing such a claim must also identify experts who can opine that the hospital was directly or systemically negligent and that this negligence caused or increased the risk of an injury.
Like many states, Pennsylvania malpractice rules require plaintiffs to satisfy certain criteria before a medical malpractice lawsuit can be filed, including obtaining a certificate of merit and filing the claim before expiration of the statute of limitations. Under Pennsylvania law, all medical negligence and malpractice cases require a certificate of merit. This is a signed document from a medical professional or expert stating they’ve reviewed the case and that there is valid concern and viable evidence that malpractice led to personal injury or wrongful death. The certificate of merit is often the first box to be checked in filing a malpractice claim.
Statute of Limitations
Pennsylvania medical malpractice law allows a two-year statute of limitations. The clock starts either when the malpractice event occurred (for example, the date of a botched surgery) or, in wrongful death cases, the date of the victim’s death. If you haven’t been able to file your lawsuit within the two-year statute of limitations, you may still be able to file suit. The “discovery rule,” is a frequently used exception that delays the start time of the statute of limitations until the plaintiff “discovered” they were injured due to negligence.
Corporate malpractice claims are both complex and challenging. Therefore, if you are considering bringing a corporate negligence claim against a hospital, you need to hire expert attorneys who specialize in this area of the law.
Proving A Claim for Corporate Negligence Against a Pennsylvania Hospital
An experienced medical malpractice attorney will need to do a thorough investigation in order to bring a successful corporate negligence claim against a hospital. As an initial matter, corporate negligence claims, like any medical malpractice claim, require the plaintiff to bear the burden of proof in order to prevail. As with any medical malpractice claim, a plaintiff who brings a corporate negligence cases must prove four elements:
- That the hospital owed the patient a duty of care.
- That the hospital breached its duty of care.
- That the hospital’s breach caused or increased the risk of plaintiff’s injury; and
- The plaintiff did in fact suffer a physical injury.
Establishing a duty of care, especially in an inpatient setting, is usually not difficult. However, developing and proving a theory that the hospital was negligent and that it caused harm are often quite challenging. One common way to establish that a hospital was negligent would be to prove that the hospital failed to adopt or enforce critical policies and procedures related to providing care to patients and the absence of these policies and procedures resulted in an injury. Alternatively, sometimes hospitals do create adequate policies and procedures for patient care, but never train their nurses or doctors on those procedures. Of course, even the best procedure for patient care is useless if it just sits on a shelf. Hospitals cannot satisfy their duty to patients by simply adopting policies and procedures, they need to train their staff to follow those policies and procedures.
Available Damages in Corporate Negligence Cases
Medical bills are expensive, and catastrophic injury due to negligence can require unexpected treatment. A medical malpractice attorney might seek compensation for economic damages to cover these costs. Additionally, a malpractice victim may miss work due to their injury—and, in some cases, will not be able to work in the future. Thus, many malpractice cases seek compensation for both lost wages and loss of future earning potential.
Some damages don’t have an obvious price tag. These are called non-economic damages, and they include:
- Pain and suffering
- Disfigurement, such as scars or amputation
- Loss of enjoyment in life
- Loss of consortium
- Emotional distress
Although some states have a cap on non-economic damages in medical negligence cases, there’s no limit in Pennsylvania.
Contact Cohen, Placitella & Roth with Your Medical Malpractice Claim
Medical malpractice causes pain and suffering for the victim and their loved ones—and victims deserve compensation.
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