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Emergency Room Negligence: When Can You File a Claim for Medical Malpractice?

Exterior of a hopsital Emergency Room at night

Medical malpractice in emergency rooms is a persistent concern, and it presents a major risk for patients who need emergency medical care. According to one university study, approximately 20 percent of all medical malpractice claims arising in the hospital setting originate in the emergency room. The study also found that the emergency room, “is the third riskiest area of the hospital following the operating room and the delivery suite.”

Medical Malpractice in Emergency Rooms Is Alarmingly Common. But, Why?

Why is medical malpractice in the emergency room so common? This study and others point to a number of different factors. One reason is that emergency room patients tend to have medical issues that are more severe than those of patients who have time to schedule appointments with their doctors, and this means that the consequences of malpractice are more pronounced. According to the study linked above, “more than half of legitimate claims [for emergency room negligence] involve serious disability or death.”

Another reason is simply the nature of emergency room care. In emergency situations, doctors must make quick, often split-second, decisions. They do not have time to conduct research or consult with specialists. When a patient presents with a serious or potentially life-threatening condition, an ER doctor must provide a diagnosis based on the information that is available and provide treatment under high-pressure circumstances.

A third reason is the volume of patients that seek treatment of illnesses and injuries in emergency rooms. In the context of this discussion, more patients mean more opportunities for mistakes. Not only does the volume of emergency room patients mean that doctors and nurses are often under pressure to diagnose and treat patients as quickly as possible. But all else being equal, more patients simply translates to more medical malpractice claims.

However, while these are all explanations for the high rate of medical malpractice in emergency rooms, they are not justifications for improper patient care. Just like all other doctors in Connecticut, emergency room doctors are held to a certain standard of care. Nurses, hospital administrators, and others owe legal duties to patients as well. And when a patient suffers due to a medical mistake or administrative error, the patient (or his or her family) deserves to be fairly compensated.

10 Common Examples of Emergency Room Medical Malpractice

In the emergency room setting, medical malpractice can take many different forms. The risk of avoidable illnesses and complications begins when the patient comes through the door (though EMT and paramedic malpractice is a concern as well), and it can continue well past the end of the patient’s visit. For example, the following are all examples of potential emergency room medical malpractice claims:

  • Denial of Treatment – Under federal law, emergency rooms are prohibited from denying treatment to individuals who are in need of emergency treatment because they do not have insurance and lack the ability to pay. Denying treatment to a patient in need of emergency care can constitute a form of medical malpractice.
  • Failure to Treat – Failure to conduct appropriate triage, resulting in a patient’s condition worsening while waiting in the emergency room, may constitute medical malpractice as well. Hospital administrative staff must appropriately prioritize patients based upon the severity and urgency of their medical treatment needs, not their time of arrival.
  • Failure to Order Tests or Scans – Once an emergency room patient is brought back for treatment, the treating physician must order the necessary tests and/or scans in order to accurately diagnose the patient’s condition, taking into consideration the amount of time that is available. Failure to order tests or scans resulting in a misdiagnosis or non-diagnosis can often support a claim for medical malpractice.
  • Failure to Diagnose – Whether due to failure to order necessary tests or scans, misreading of test results, failure to consider the patient’s medical history or failure to conduct an adequate physical exam, failure to diagnose a patient’s condition is a common cause of action in emergency room medical malpractice claims.
  • Misdiagnosis – Misdiagnosis (i.e., diagnosing a patient with an injury or illness that he or she does not have) is a common form of emergency room medical malpractice as well. In fact, both within and outside of the emergency room setting, misdiagnosis is by far the most common type of medical mistake.
  • Medication Errors – Anesthesia errors, administering the wrong medication, administering too much or too little of the right medication (overdosing or underdosing), and other medication errors are common in emergency rooms as well. Depending on the circumstances involved, these errors can be extremely dangerous and they can potentially have long-term (or fatal) consequences for patients.
  • Prescription Errors – Prescription errors are also common. This includes errors such as prescribing a patient an incorrect medication or dosage as a result of a misdiagnosis, failing to consider the patient’s current prescriptions and sending a patient home from the emergency room with a prescription but without other necessary treatment.
  • Inadequate or Improper Treatment – In addition to triage, testing, diagnostic, and medication errors, various types of treatment errors are common in the emergency room setting as well. These errors can range from negligent stitching or suturing to failing to properly set, splint, or cast a broken bone.
  • Surgical Mistakes – While surgical mistakes occur in both emergency and non-emergency situations, there is a greater risk of suffering an injury or complication due to a medical mistake during emergency surgery. This includes mistakes such as unnecessarily performing a high-risk surgery, performing surgery on the wrong part or wrong side of the body, and leaving surgical implements in the body cavity.
  • Failure to Follow Up – When a patient is sent home from the emergency room, follow-up will often be necessary. Under certain circumstances, failure to follow up (e.g., to notify the patient of test results) can give rise to a medical malpractice claim as well.

What Is the Standard of Care in Connecticut Emergency Rooms?

In order for these (or other) mistakes to support claims for medical malpractice, it must be possible to prove that the mistake represents a failure to meet the requisite standard of care. In Connecticut, the standard of care for emergency room doctors is judged based on how other competent and qualified doctors would respond under similar circumstances. If an ER doctor makes a mistake that is justified under the circumstances presented, then the mistake does not amount to medical malpractice. On the other hand, if an ER doctor’s mistake represents a deviation from the generally-accepted standards for emergency room care, then the doctor can – and should – be held liable.

One key aspect of emergency room medical malpractice claims is that ER doctors’ decisions are compared to those of other ER doctors – not other physicians generally. In Connecticut, it is understood that ER doctors face unique circumstances and that it will not always be possible for ER doctors to provide treatment to the same standards as other doctors who operate under non-emergency circumstances.

However, while emergency room care may not be subject to the same standards as non-emergency care, there are still clear standards – and ER patients are still entitled to a reasonable expectation that they will receive the treatment they need. As a result, ER patients and families of ER patients who have questions about the quality of their (or their loved one’s) care should consult with an experienced malpractice attorney.

Who Is Liable for Emergency Room Medical Malpractice?

In cases involving emergency room medical malpractice, patients and their families will typically have claims against (i) the doctor who provided diagnostic or treatment services, (ii) the hospital, or (iii) both. As a practical matter, however, doctors and hospitals in Connecticut almost universally carry medical malpractice insurance. So most successful claims are resolved through the insurance settlement process.

Emergency room doctors are typically hospital employees. So, patients who have claims arising out of doctors’ mistakes will typically have claims against both the doctor and the hospital (which is “vicariously liable” for its employees’ negligence). In cases that do not involve doctors’ mistakes (e.g., triage errors or prescription mix-ups during discharge), the hospital can still be held liable for the negligent acts of its other employees. In many circumstances, hospitals can also be held directly liable for mistakes such as understaffing and hiring unqualified or untrained personnel.

Steps to Take to Find Out If You Have a Claim for Emergency Room Medical Malpractice

For individuals who sought treatment in the emergency room and who now have concerns about their diagnosis, treatment, or prescriptions, there are some important steps to try to take right away. The same generally applies (except for seeking medical treatment) to families who have lost loved ones and who believe that emergency room negligence may be to blame. These steps include:

  • Seek Medical Treatment Promptly – Seek treatment from a qualified physician. Go to someone you trust, or contact us and we can provide you with a referral.
  • Locate Your Records from the ER Visit – Try to find copies of all the records you have from the ER visit. This includes scans, invoices, and receipts that you may have received by mail or email.
  • Collect Any Other Relevant Medical Records – If you have medical records related to a pre-existing condition or any follow-up care following your ER visit, collect these as well.
  • Take Notes to Preserve Your Recollection – Write down all pertinent details you can remember. What caused you (or your loved one) to go to the ER? How long did it take to get seen? Why do you suspect medical malpractice?
  • Consult with a Malpractice Attorney – Finally, you should consult with a malpractice attorney as soon as possible. An attorney who has significant experience handling medical malpractice claims will be able to evaluate your legal rights and advise you regarding whether you should pursue a claim.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation at Berkowitz Hanna

If you suspect that you or a loved one may have received negligent care in a Connecticut emergency room, we encourage you to contact us for a free initial consultation. To schedule an appointment with a malpractice attorney at Berkowitz Hanna, call us or inquire online today.

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