Cook County Record

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Appeals panel: 'Close ties' may make Northwestern Memorial liable for Erie clinic staff's actions

By Scott Holland | Aug 23, 2016

Medical malpractice 09

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 workers.” 

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 of Gilbert.” 

Ultimately the 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 alleged agent. 

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.

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Organizations in this Story

Northwestern Memorial HospitalErie Family Health CenterSwanson Martin & Bell LLPIllinois Supreme CourtHal J. Kleinman