WA Supreme Court: Team Member Liability Need Not Show Any Particular Individual's Negligence
Grove v. Peacehealth St. Joseph Hospital
I’m going to treat this opinion a little more delicately than the last few, if only because I know more people will be reading it.
Grove underwent a pretty complicated heart surgery. How complicated? It took six hours. Do you have any idea how many of my own heart I could destroy with Krispy Kreme donuts in that amount of time? The answer is probably just one, surprisingly.
Anyhow, Dr. Leone performed the surgery. Other surgeons took over after the surgery to monitor Grove’s care when Dr. Leone was out. Due to complications, an infectious disease expert was brought in. Over time, complications became evidence in the leg, which, eventually, one of the doctors suspected was compartmental syndrome. If caught in time the leg can be saved. This wasn’t. The leg had permanent damage.
So what does that have to do with Peacehealth? A non-lawyer may think that the doctors work for Peacehealth, that is rare. The cause of action against Peacehealth was actually against the nurses, staff, managers, etc, that assisted the doctors in providing the care. Those team members (at least the ones that touched the patient) were responsible for letting the docs know how the patient was doing. Leone, as the one leading the surgical team, was responsible for quarterbacking, including making sure the entire team knew what to look for. He was the captain of the ship, so to speak. The subsequent monitoring surgeons were commanding officers at the time. They should have directed the team to look out for known complications, including compartmental syndrome.
The jury did find Peacehealth’s employees were negligent and that their care was part of the reason Grove didn’t fare as well. The trial court dismissed Peacehealth as a matter of law, stating that Grove had to identify the particular negligence of any one person on the team, as opposed to general negligence of the team overall.
The supreme court disagreed. As a threshold matter, the expert opinions had identified with particular the negligence of the surgeons, who were agents of the hospital in this case.
Now, the opinion could have ended there. But the court goes on to look at whether this team theory is one that can be actionable at trial:
Additionally, we note that the Court of Appeals view that chapter 7.70 RCW "does not contemplate liability for groups of providers" appears to be overly restrictive. . . . The statutory definition of"health care provider” is nonexclusive, extending to "[a]n entity" "employing one or more" individual health care providers. RCW 7.70.020(3). The hospital is specifically identified as one such entity, and it would logically seem that a hospital medical team collaborating in providing treatment to an individual patient in accordance with hospital policies could constitute yet another type of "entity."
The court noted that the Court of Appeals failed to apply supreme court precedent from 1937 that where there is evidence of team member negligence, the verdict against the hospital can’t be overturned.
To me, this opinion does not seem so much an expansion of RCW 7.70, the medical malpractice statute, but rather reaffirms as long as you have expert testimony regarding negligence and causation, it can be against an entity, which may involve an individual employee, team members, or the team as a whole.