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When is a Montana hospital liable for a doctor's mistakes?


In a recent post we discussed the legal standard of care to which Montana doctors are held. If a doctor breaches this standard of care, and a patient suffers injury or a worsened medical condition as a result, the doctor can be held liable in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

But, in many cases, the hospital or health care facility where the doctor was on staff can be held liable as well. This can be the case even if the hospital or facility was not itself negligent. In this situation, the hospital's liability is based on a legal doctrine called "respondeat superior" -- a Latin phrase that means "let the master answer."

Under respondeat superior, employers can be held legally responsible for an employee's negligence that occurred while the employee was acting within the scope of the person's employment. In a medical malpractice case, a hospital can be held liable if the doctor's negligence took place while the doctor was treating the patient or performing surgery at the hospital.

Vicarious liability applies only to negligence committed by employees, not independent contractors. In defending against a malpractice case, the hospital or health care facility that is sued will often argue the doctor wasn't their employee. They may introduce evidence showing they had limited authority over the doctor's treatment decisions.

Whether vicarious liability applies in any given medical malpractice case is often a complicated and fact-specific legal issue. The hospital will often try to be dismissed from the case in a pretrial motion for summary judgment. It is critical for the patient's attorney to gather and present evidence supporting the claim that the doctor was acting within the scope of his or her employment when the malpractice occurred.

Source: Findlaw.com, "Vicarious Liability," accessed July 9, 2016

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