Injury at Hospital Examines Liability and Duty

The duty owed by hospitals to patients is a rather cut and dry area of law. However, a case arising out of West Monroe, Louisiana, illustrates how questions of liability become more difficult when the patients’ visitors are involved. Although a hospital does owe a duty of reasonable care to its visitors, the key is whether there is an “ease of association” between that duty and the risk of harm. Liability will therefore often turn, not on the factual issues of a case, but whether the risk of harm to the visitor is within the scope of that duty.

This was the matter before the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Vanderpool v. Louisiana Extended Care Hospital. The case involved a visitor who was injured after her mother fell off a commode chair. The patient’s daughter was helping her mother onto the chair when the arm gave way. Unable to support her mother’s weight, the daughter fell to the floor and sustained injury. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant hospital, meaning there was no issue of material fact and a decision could properly be made without the need for further deliberation.

Reviewing summary judgment for a hospital’s liability usually begins with consideration of the hospital’s legal duty. This was the primary determination in Vanderpool, where the appellate court first addressed the hospital’s duty to the plaintiff visitor. While the hospital had a duty to maintain the commode chair in safe working order and to take other steps to protect the patient, the patient’s visitor was not similarly protected. As the court reasoned, “The hospital’s duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of visitors would not encompass the unlikely risk that a visitor would sustain an injury in connection with a patient using a commode chair.” The point of a duty of care is not to protect against all possible instances of harm that could arise.

Of particular note in this case was the fact that the plaintiff visitor’s decision to help her mother was voluntary. Even assuming the validity of the facts alleged, the court found that the particular circumstances of the incident gave rise to no duty of care to the visitor plaintiff. For this reason, the appellate court held that the trial court’s determination of summary judgment was appropriate.

The court turned next to the hospital’s duty of care as the owner and custodian of the commode chair. Central to this analysis was whether there was a defect in the chair that posed an unreasonable risk of injury to the plaintiff visitor. The hospital was able to show that the plaintiff would be unable to demonstrate such a defect. In turn, plaintiff invoked the legal doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, which essentially alleges that the nature of an accident is such that it could only have occurred through negligence. But because res ipsa loquitur relies upon a circumstantial determination, the court noted, it does not apply where direct evidence is available – namely, Vanderpool’s own account. The fact that the chair “gave way” under the plaintiff’s mother’s weight does not necessarily mean it happened because of a defect. Another explanation is plausible, so res ipsa loquitur was inapplicable.

Up to this point the appellate court was giving the plaintiff visitor the benefit of the doubt regarding her factual claims. Aside from the above considerations, the summary judgment hearing determined that plaintiff could not prove those claims anyway. She was the only eyewitness to the alleged injury; sought medical treatment more than a year after the incident; and her injuries were not documented in the medical charts concerning the mother’s fall. The plaintiff’s “allegations and uncorroborated, self-serving testimony” were simply not enough to rebut the motion for summary judgment.

If you’ve been injured as a visitor to a hospital or other business, it’s important for you to act in order to protect your rights. Call the Berniard Law Firm today to speak with an attorney.