Can a Hospital be Held Liable for a Patient's Wrongful Death?

Posted by Randy Andrus | Mar 08, 2022

Medical errors are now the third-leading cause of death in the United States accounting for about 250,000 deaths annually. When a patient dies as a result of medical negligence, surviving family members have two legal options: file a medical malpractice claim or a wrongful death claim. In this article, we'll discuss wrongful death claims, hospital liability, and other important considerations. 

If your loved one has passed away due to the negligence of a hospital or medical care provider, contact our wrongful death lawyer in Salt Lake City, Utah today. We'll review your case, and advise you on the best steps going forward to ensure your loved one gets the justice they deserve. Schedule your initial consultation by calling 801-535-4645 or filling out our confidential online form

Hospitals Have an Obligation to Patients

When a patient is in the care of a medical provider, he or she is owed a duty of care. Healthcare providers directly treating patients as well as medical facilities, such as hospitals, are expected and required to uphold this duty of care to patients. Part of proving a wrongful death claim is proving that the medical providers or medical establishment breached the duty of care. To validate a wrongful death claim, four elements must exist: 

  1. Duty of Care - To establish duty of care, there must be a patient-doctor relationship. This means that the healthcare provider agreed to treat the patient and the patient agreed to be treated by the healthcare provider. 
  2. Breach of Duty - In a wrongful death case, the next step is proving how the healthcare provider breached their duty of care causing the death of a patient. Some examples of a breach are failure to diagnose, administering the wrong dosage, failure to treat, operating on the wrong site, etc.
  3. Causation - The breach of duty (carelessness or negligence) must have directly caused the patient's death.
  4. Damages - Lastly, in a wrongful death claim, the surviving family members will need to prove that the death of the patient caused damages that would have otherwise been avoidable, such as funeral costs, lost income, emotional trauma, loss of companionship, etc.

Further, to file a claim for wrongful death caused by medical negligence, these additional elements must apply:

  1. A death occurred
  2. The cause of the death was a result of negligence or misconduct
  3. If the patient had lived, his or her injury would have met a medical malpractice claim
  4. Surviving family members suffered losses due to the patient's death

Read more about proving a wrongful death claim here

When the Hospital Is Liable

Determining liability in a wrongful death medical malpractice case may be difficult and complex. A few parties, other than the hospital, may be liable, depending on the specific facts of the wrongful death case. Typically, the most common scenarios in which the hospital may be liable in a wrongful death suit are:

  • If the employees (doctors, nurses, etc) of the hospital were negligent in the deceased patient's care, causing the patient's death
  • If the hospital was directly negligent in the hiring and supervising of its employees, the maintenance of its equipment, or the overall administration of care within the hospital

Some specific examples of hospital negligence are the understaffing of care providers, failure to ensure healthcare providers maintain licensing standards, failure to maintain safety protocols (handwashing regulations, proper labeling systems, etc). 

If a nurse or another healthcare provider is liable, the hospital may also be implicated. Some examples of nurse liability include improper monitoring of patient vitals, administering the wrong medication or dosage, inadequate patient chart maintenance, failure to alert the attending physician of patient symptoms or complaints.

When a Doctor Is Liable 

If a doctor violates the standard of care, he or she may be liable in a wrongful death case should the patient die as a result. Some examples of doctor medical negligence are misdiagnosis, failure to diagnose, failure or delay to treat, operation on the wrong surgical site, leaving surgical tools inside a patient, prescription errors, childbirth mistakes, and more. 

While a hospital may be legally liable for the doctor's mistake, this isn't always the case. Sometimes, a doctor may not be an employee of the hospital, instead working in the facility as an independent contractor. If the doctor is proven to be a contractor, the hospital may not be liable for the patient's wrongful death. Your wrongful death lawyer will work to determine if the responsible doctor was a hospital employee or a contractor. Your lawyer will examine things like the doctor's employment contract or the level of control the hospital had in the doctor's overall conditions or performance. More control typically means that the hospital had an employer-like relationship with the doctor, and the court may decide that the doctor was an employee, making the hospital liable for negligence. Determining the relationship between an “independent” doctor and the hospital requires medical malpractice expertise, as the line between employee and contractor is usually a very thin one that has a great impact on potential plaintiff legal options. 

Should I Sue the Doctor or the Hospital in a Wrongful Death Case?

Determining which liable party to sue in a medical negligence wrongful death claim depends on the specific facts of the case. Another consideration will be if the doctor has enough insurance to cover the wrongful death claim. If the doctor's insurance is insufficient, and he or she was considered an employee of the hospital, it may make more sense to file a claim against the hospital. Your wrongful death attorney in Utah will use his experience to help you decide whom to hold liable. 

Consult a Wrongful Death Lawyer in Utah Today

If your loved one has been a victim of medical negligence, you're not in this alone. For 37 years, our wrongful death attorney has fought hard for our clients. We'll work tirelessly to get your loved one the justice they deserve and help you pay your bills so that you can begin to heal. To set up an initial consultation and case review, give Andrus Law Firm a call at 801-535-4645 or fill out our convenient and confidential online form. Read more about wrongful death claims and medical malpractice claims, or get in touch with us so that we can answer your specific questions. 

About the Author

Randy Andrus

BIO   Education University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law (LL.M. 1987) Business and Taxation – Transnational Practice Courses and International Bar Association Convention, Salzburg, Austria Southwestern University School of Law (J.D. 1984) Dean's List American Jurisprudence...

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