Tampa General Hospital not liable in 2009 malpractice case, appeals court affirms

By Quinten Plummer | Sep 18, 2016

TAMPA – Tampa General Hospital (TGH) is rightfully cleared of liability in a malpractice suit in which a patient at the hospital passed away on the operating table under the care of medical professionals contracted from the University of South Florida (USF), an appeals court affirmed recently.

Arthur Lee Goodwin asserted that physicians and surgeons who operated on his wife’s colon to remove cancer in 2009 were functioning as agents of Tampa General despite the waivers his wife signed.

The Goodwin estate argued that the procedures performed on the late Annie Goodwin were nondelegable, citing Florida Statute 240.215, now updated to 1012.965, to argue that the special notice she received from Tampa General were “ neither separate nor conspicuous.”

Further, her estate argued ambiguity in the language on the special notice and pointed to a line that stated “the patient will or may be treated by USF physicians.” The court interpreted this argument as suggesting the form should have been affirmative in stating that only USF staff would deliver care.

The court ruled that it could come to no other conclusion except that the separate notice Mrs. Goodwin received was conspicuous and that she acknowledged this by signing it. It was also clear that TGH and USF had established an agreement to deliver care to patients, the ruling stated.

As for Tampa General being obligated to deliver nondelegable care, the court found that the hospital never established a contract with Mrs. Goodwin that indicated that it would oversee her care. The nondelegable duties and liability was with the university, the ruling read.

In its conclusion, the appeals court simply wrote “affirmed.”

Tampa General declined to share a statement with the Florida Record.

In this case, language indicating the physicians weren’t hospital employees was “buried in the admissions papers,” noted Mark Leonardo, personal injury lawyer at Kuzyk Law in California. And that’s a problem for many patients.

“While they may tell you to take your time and read the papers before signing, how much time do you really have? It’s usually: 'sign here, here and initial here…,” Leonardo told the Florida Record.  

In most cases, patients sign the forms without reading. And even those who read all of the paperwork may not feel empowered to declare that the hospital accepts liability, according to Leonardo.

“All a patient cares about at the time of admission is getting treated,” he said. “They are not even thinking about medical malpractice or who is involved or who is responsible if something goes wrong.”

While it is common to have nurses on the payroll, it’s rare that hospitals employ physicians. Instead, the physicians are granted privileges to practice at the hospitals, according to Leonardo, who said he ran into a similar case of malpractice with a dentist’s office that eventually settled instead of defending the ambiguity in contracts’ language about contractors.

“This is why, for example,  that you get a separate bill from the doctor and a separate bill from the hospital when you go to the emergency room or have a hospital stay,” Leonardo said.  “The physicians are generally independent contractors.”

It’s critical that people understand that they may encounter a number of medical professionals working as contractors at hospitals. This includes radiologists, ER personnel and even lab technicians, Wayne Cohen, whose DC-based practice focuses on malpractice, said. 

“Patients also often times have the ability to advise their health care providers if they do not wish to be treated by any students,” Cohen told the Florida Record. “The bottom line is that in today's day and age, patients must be advocates in their own care and treatment."

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