When a patient checks into the ER, most of the time they are sick or in a lot of pain. Their minds might not be as sharp as usual, and they might have other things to worry about than signing release forms. These forms, however, may become the center of a lawsuit that could come to trial in the near future.
A California hospital’s liability is at the center of this release form lawsuit. In August 2008, Dean Whitlow awoke to hear his mother screaming uncontrollably. She claimed to be having the worst headache of her life. She was in such agony and Whitlow decided there was nothing to do but take her to the emergency room. On the way, she vomited in the car, and when they got to the waiting room at Rideout Memorial Hospital, she vomited again.
According to court documents, her pain ranked at a 6 out of 10, but would periodically spike to 10 out of 10. When the hospital staff asked her to sign a “Conditions Admissions” form, but her son insisted that she was so overwhelmed with the pain and nausea and she was crying uncontrollably. There was no way for her to be able to consent to these forms or even read them. Whitlow also stated that no one on the hospital staff ever read the statements to her in order to help her out.
Eventually, she signed the form. The form itself stated that all emergency room physicians and any radiologists, anesthesiologists, and pathologists were considered independent contractors, not formally employed by the hospital. Emergency room bills and doctor bills would come separately. Unable to do anything, Whitlow and his mother waited.
When a doctor finally looked over Whitlow’s mother, he diagnosed her with a muscle tension headache and sent her home, but the pain continued. At 9 p.m. that night while in an ambulance to go back to the hospital, Whitlow’s mother fainted. She was admitted to UC Davis Medical Center and died just two days later due to a left temporal hemorrhage.
Whitlow wanted to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital for misdiagnosing his mother, but the hospital claimed that the lawsuit was not valid. Whitlow’s mother had signed the release forms that absolved the hospital of responsibility for the independent contractor’s actions. According to a judge from Yuba County who originally dismissed the lawsuit, the employee who had diagnosed Whitlow’s mother was wearing a uniform that said California Emergency Physicians.
Whitlow wanted to fight these charges so he appealed the case to the state appeals court. That court found that hospitals should not be able to deflect responsibility for the actions of their physicians with just the signing of one form. Whitlow further argued that his mother was not actually in a position to comprehend what she was signing. The pain for the headache was just too much.
Since then, the case has been reinstated. According the state appeals court, hospitals cannot be protected from medical malpractice with these forms because most of the people who check into the ER are in various states of pain and worry. They do not have the capacity to determine what they are signing and what it will mean for them.
This is a great case for anyone facing a medical malpractice suit against a hospital and emergency room doctor. Hospitals need to stand by their physicians, and if one of them is negligent, then they need to take responsibility for employing them in the first place. It’s unclear how the court will rule in Whitlow’s case, but we’re sure to find out soon.