Hospitals may be held liable for the actions of medical
professionals they do not employ, an Illinois appellate court has affirmed.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court weighed in Aug.
19, answering a so-called “interlocutory
appeal” – or an appeal based on legal question amid an ongoing lawsuit – to clarify
the “doctrine of apparent agency.” The question submitted to the appellate
court was based on the 1993 Illinois Second District Appellate Court decision
in Gilbert v. Sycamore Municipal Hospital,
which established conditions for vicarious liability, even if the actions at
the root of the claim are those of people who work at an unrelated institution
which is not a party to the actual litigation.
Justice Eileen O’Neill Burke wrote the opinion; Justices Jesse
Reyes and Robert E. Gordon concurred.
In this appeal, the question arose out of lawsuit stemming
from medical care received by plaintiffs Christina Yarbrough and David Goodpaster,
who, in 2005, sough a pregnancy test from Erie Family Health Center, a federally funded, nonprofit
health clinic which operates several locations in Chicago and nearby suburbs. Clinic workers told Yarbrough if she
obtained prenatal care at Erie, she would deliver the baby at Northwestern
Memorial Hospital, court documents said.
“Yarbrough believed,” Burke wrote, “that if she received
prenatal care from Erie, she would be receiving treatment from NMH health care
Yarbrough delivered her daughter at only 26 weeks gestation
on April 8, 2006, via emergency cesarean section. She alleged Erie clinic staff,
after a Dec. 2, 2005, ultrasound, failed to accurately identify and address her
bicornuate uterus and shortened cervix, leading to her daughter’s premature
birth and “numerous medical complications.”
The parents filed their initial complaint Dec. 28, 2009,
alleging medical negligence against Dr. William Grobman, as well as
Northwestern Memorial, for the care provided at Erie. A Cook County Circuit Court
granted the hospital’s motion for summary judgment, while granting the parents
leave to file an amended complaint, which they did Aug. 22, 2013. This time,
Yarbrough alleged the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation should be held
liable based on Grobman’s conduct, and the hospital should also be found
negligent, based on the so-called apparent authority doctrine.
The parents, Burke wrote, “set forth numerous allegations
regarding the close ties between NMH and Erie in order to satisfy the elements
hospital filed a partial motion for summary judgment. After a Cook County judge
denied that motion, the hospital asked the circuit court to certify a question
of law regarding apparent authority. After the appellate justices denied the
hospital’s position for leave to appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court directed
the justices to consider the trial court’s question.
According to the opinion,
Gilbert establishes three factors a plaintiff must establish to avoid
summary judgment and hold a hospital liable for the actions of an independent
contractor doctor, including showing actions that would lead a person to
believe the accused doctor was a hospital employee or agent; proving the
hospital had knowledge of the employee’s actions to create the appearance of
authority; and showing the plaintiff relied on the conduct of the hospital and its
The hospital argued the Erie clinic is distinctly separate
because it has its own name and facility. But the justices agreed with the
parents’ suggestion that historical and current ties between the two show “material
issues of fact exist regarding the elements of apparent authority.” The
parents, Burke noted, tried to prove they relied on the hospital itself, not
just one doctor at the clinic.
The justices rejected the hospital’s argument it can’t be
held liable because the parents did not also sue the Erie clinic, finding “Gilbert contains no such requirement.”
The opinion further examined the strategy each side has
mounted thus far and which facts remain in dispute. The issue of whether an
agency relationship exists between the hospital and Erie clinic are “material
questions of fact for a jury to resolve,” Burke wrote, noting how the parents
citied hospital publicity materials and websites identifying the clinic as a
partner and touting “formal and long-standing affiliations.”
Having found apparent agency could apply in this instance,
the justices remanded the case for further proceedings.
According to Cook County court records, Yarbrough is
represented in the action by attorney Hal J. Kleinman, of King of Prussia, Pa.
Northwestern Memorial Hospital is represented by the firm of
Swanson Martin & Bell, of Chicago.