A recent Alabama Supreme Court decision alleviates the liability of hospitals if they have any affiliation with State of Alabama. Lauree Durden Ellison was seen in the Emergency Room at Baptist Medical Center East Hospital in Montgomery. The hospital failed to notify Ms. Ellison or her doctor that she left the hospital with an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. Sadly, Ms. Ellison died. A Montgomery jury found the hospital was liable for failing to make this disclosure and awarded Ms. Ellison’s family a $3.2 million dollar verdict. Under Alabama’s wrongful death statute all of these damages are punitive in nature intended to punish the wrongdoer and prevent such acts in the future. However, the Alabama Supreme court in a 5-3 decision held that the hospital was immune from liability.
In the months prior to Ms. Ellison visit to the ER, Baptist Medical Center East parent company was undergoing financial difficulty and transferred operations of the hospital to the University of Alabama and UAB Health Systems for a set period of time. Once the term ended the operations of the hospital were to revert back to Baptist Medical Center East. Based upon the fact that a board of trustees created by the University was set up to run the hospital, the majority of the Court held that was enough to give the hospital state immunity.
This ruling creates a very dangerous precedent as noted by Chief Justice Cobb’s dissent. This ruling frees the hospital from responsibility for the harm that may be caused by its negligence. Shouldn’t hospitals be held accountable, like everyone else? Consider this: Medical errors are the fifth-leading cause of deaths in the US, with up to 98,000 deaths annually. (source Medical News Today). If the judicial system cannot serve as a checks and balances on state run hospitals who will? Would you want to seek medical care in a facility you know can cut off your wrong leg during surgery and have no responsibility?
For a good overview of this case and its holding see John Archibald’s article “It’s good to be in the service of the king.”