Can a Hospital be Liable for the Death of an Ebola Patient?

As the Ebola scare continues throughout the U.S., one leading case is raising important issues about medical malpractice. The case of a man who died in a hospital from Ebola can give us an important lesson about the standard of care that our health care providers must demonstrate, and what an injured victim must prove in a medical malpractice action.

The Death of a Texas Ebola Patient

The case involves a Texas hospital that waited many hours before treating Thomas Duncan, who eventually died from the disease. After treating him, the nurses then reportedly continued contact with other patients, unaware of the dangers of spreading the disease to themselves and others.

A nursing group is now calling the Dallas hospital “sloppy,” and alleging that nurses were not properly trained in Ebola protocols. The nurses say they were given no protective gear, and that blood was tested using a system that could infect the entire hospital’s blood supply.

In a rare move, the hospital has apologized, and admitted mistakes in treating Mr. Duncan.

So did the hospital and its staff commit medical malpractice? Despite the apology and the clear inadequate training alleged by the nurses, that question may be more difficult than it appears.

Medical Malpractice and Ebola

Not every bad outcome is a result of malpractice. Health care providers don’t have to always make the right decisions. They just have to make the decisions that other, similar health care providers in the same situation would do.

For example, it’s well known that certain pains and shortness of breath may signal a heart attack. A doctor who sees these symptoms and does nothing is likely liable for malpractice.

But ebola is new to this country. There are no protocols. Hospitals have had little time to learn about the disease and establish standards, much less train employees. Even some experts disagree on how it’s transmitted. Given this, the question becomes whether other doctors or hospitals in the same situation, would do the same thing the Dallas hospital did–even if it was ultimately incorrect. The answer may well be yes.

This is likely why the hospital apologized. It may be well aware that while it made a mistake, it made a mistake that many hospitals would make. Hospitals are not so willing to apologize when they know they have violated longstanding standards of care.

Causation will be an issue as well. A victim must demonstrate that the malpractice caused the injury.

Using the heart attack example, thousands of people are saved from heart attacks every day. A hospital may have caused a death if it fails to recognize and react to a heart attack.

But many have died from ebola, even with timely and appropriate treatment (at least, overseas). If Mr. Duncan would have died anyway, the hospital can argue that whatever errors it made did not cause the death. The disease did.

These problems are not unique to ebola. As new diseases and conditions are discovered, and new medicines that may sometimes be dangerous are introduced, the standard of care is always measured against the body of expertise and knowledge that exist in a given medical field. What is not malpractice today because of uncertainties, may be malpractice tomorrow, when more knowledge about a disease’s treatment is learned by healthcare providers.

Malpractice cases can be complex and involve proper analysis of facts, the standard of care, and review of medical information even before a case is filed. If you’re injured in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.