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Vicarious Liability

I recently spoke with a physician who had just come out of a years-long legal slog. This physician owned his own practice and was in the habit of holding monthly staff meetings. He provided lunch at these meetings. One tragic day, he sent his receptionist out to get lunch for the meeting. She picked up some sandwiches and was hurrying back to the office when she ran a red light, striking another car in the intersection. That devastating accident resulted in the death of two teenage girls in the other car.

As healthcare professionals, we are begrudgingly prepared for malpractice lawsuits that come from the actions of our own hands. We live in the most litigious society in the world, we are home to 85% of all the world’s attorneys, and we have created a legal system that rewards frivolous lawsuits nearly as well as meritorious lawsuits. If we’re not ready to get sued, it’s time to hang up the white coat and scrubs.

While we have mentally accepted these facts, most doctors are surprised to discover just how far their liability extends. Consider the case we started out with above. This was not a malpractice case and doctor wasn’t driving, yet is he still liable? The answer, supported by acres of legal precedent, is a resounding yes. Did the doctor do anything wrong? Clearly, no, he did not, but it still ended up costing him millions.