If you have been involved in a serious accident and rushed to the emergency room, you likely expect the doctors and nurses there to diagnose and treat you appropriately. However, emergency rooms are stressful environments, and mistakes often happen that make a patient’s injuries worse than they would have been otherwise. If you want to sue for malpractice, you should be aware that the usual malpractice standard applies—but with a caveat.
Doctors and nurses in emergency rooms are expected to meet the same standard of competent care that a reasonable doctor or nurse would meet in any other emergency room. This probably will require retaining one or more experts to describe the standard and how the defendant violated it. The reason why the standard may seem different in this context is that emergency rooms are not typical of hospital facilities. The urgency required to treat injuries there means that mistakes are more likely than they would be normally, and a minor error may be understandable. However, a serious mistake likely will result in liability.
Most doctors in non-emergency situations are not employees of the hospital where they work. This means that a patient usually cannot sue the hospital if an individual doctor committed malpractice. (They can sue the hospital for mistakes made by technicians, lab workers, and other medical staff because they are employees.) However, hospitals may be liable for malpractice by doctors in the emergency room because the patient did not choose to see a certain doctor in the emergency room and did not necessarily know whether a doctor was an employee. This can lead to greater verdicts or settlements, but it also can mean that cases can be hard-fought because so much is at stake.
Rules for First Responders and Good Samaritans
If you want to sue the first responders who came to your accident scene, you may face an uphill battle, even if they acted negligently. People who work in emergency services, such as firefighters, paramedics, and ambulance workers, generally have immunity from lawsuits based on malpractice. There may be an exception in some states if someone in emergency services acts with extreme negligence or recklessness.
You may have heard of the Good Samaritan rule. This provides that people do not need to help an injured victim but must avoid recklessly endangering the person if they choose to help. The rule applies to doctors who are off-duty when they respond to an accident, but it does not apply to a doctor who already has a doctor-patient relationship with the victim.
Refusal to Treat a Patient
If a hospital receives federal funding through Medicare, it cannot refuse treatment to any patient in the emergency room, including people who cannot pay for medical services. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act is a federal law that imposes liability if a hospital receiving Medicare fails to provide a medical screening of the patient and work to stabilize their condition. A hospital cannot meet its obligations by transferring the patient to a different emergency room. Liability in these cases attaches to the hospital rather than an individual doctor.