Vicarious Liability

A doctor who has been negligent may not be the only defendant in a medical malpractice suit. Under the principle of “respondeat superior” the hospital can also be liable because of the fault by the doctor.

Respondeat Superior

To provide the translation of this Latin word, it means that the master should answer. In order for respondeat superior to apply, the negligent act must have occurred within the “scope of employment.”  However, one may ask what exactly are the acts that can be labelled as doing work relative to the job description of a person.

Generally, an employer may be held vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee if:

  • The injury occurred while the employee was on the clock,
  • The injury was caused by an activity that is included in the job description of a person;
  • The employer is supposed to derive some gain or benefit out of the actions by the employee.

Since treating patients and performing surgeries are activities that usually fall within a doctor’s scope of an employment, hospitals may be liable for any injuries negligently caused by their doctors during treatment or surgery. The hospital, however, may not be held liable to the fault caused by the doctor if the physician’s duties were performed outside the business hours of the hospital. This is in recognition of the fact the hospital also has the right to defend itself.

Other Types of Cases

Hospitals aren’t the only ones who can be held vicariously liable in medical malpractice suits. A doctor can also be made accountable for the negligence or acts committed by the staff under his order. Likewise, an attending physician may be held liable for any negligence on the part of interns or medical students under the physician’s guidance. For medical professionals in private practice, partners and associates can also be made liable.

Defenses to Vicarious Liability

Most of the time, the employers are able to excuse themselves from any liability by alleging the defense that the employee has been acting beyond the scope of his authority. Since employers aren’t liable for the negligence of independent contractors, an employer may also argue that the employee wasn’t really an employee at all. The hospitals can also prove the fact that they only have limited supervision over the hospital employees and that the doctors were working on their own discretion.

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