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Whose Fault, Doctor or Hospital?

Whose Fault, Doctor or Hospital

The Supreme Court recently had occasion to look at the respective responsibilities of a hospital and a treating specialist when a patient tragically died in Newcastle Private Hospital.

In this case the patient died after undergoing elective surgery. The deceased’s family brought a claim for their nervous shock and for the loss of the financial benefit of the deceased.

In the case of Stefanyszyn -v- Brown & Newcastle Private Hospital, the specialist doctor admitted that he had breached his duty to the deceased. He filed a Cross Claim arguing that the hospital was at fault as well.

What happened to the deceased is that a loop of suture material was inadvertently looped around the deceased’s bowel resulting in a blockage and the onset of infection.

The specialist said that there were a number of steps that could have been taken by the hospital staff during the recovery process which should have been followed and communicated to him so that he could properly assess the deceased’s condition.

There are some very important comments in the Judgment of Justice Schmidt about the way in which a hospital and its specialist doctors have a responsibility to take reasonable care for a patient. The basis of a hospital’s duty arises out of the hospital/patient relationship. There is a distinction between the duty owed by a hospital which functions as a place where medical care facilities are provided for the use of physician and his patient, and that of a hospital which functions as a place where a person in need of treatment goes in order to obtain treatment provided by the hospital. The treatment provided in an Emergency Department of a hospital provides a common place example of the latter. In the former case, the patient’s use of the hospital is the result of an arrangement made between the hospital and the physician by which the physician is granted hospital privileges. In such cases, the hospital is not responsible for the negligence of the physician. The hospital is only responsible for those employed to provide the services the hospital provides to the patient.

In the result it was concluded that the duty which the hospital owed the deceased extended not only to the nursing and paramedical services it provided her, but also to the services which should have been provided to her by all members of the clinical team it assigned to help the specialist.

The Court found that both the specialist and the hospital each independently owed a duty of care to the deceased. While those duties no doubt overlapped given the way that the care was administered, the respective duties never passed from one to the other.

Justice Schmidt ultimately found that the hospital failed the deceased in a number of respects and apportioned liability between the specialist and the hospital.

We are regularly called upon to advise in hospital negligence cases and this decision provides some guidance on how Courts will examine cases where there is fault in more than one party.

Courtenay Poulden