Hospital Emergency Room (ER) Malpractice and Compensation for Injuries

Medical errors in hospital emergency rooms happen every day. Here’s how to seek compensation for injuries caused by medical malpractice in the ER.

Nearly 140 million people end up in the emergency room (ER) every year. As many as 1.5 million of those are transferred directly to critical care units, while thousands of others are treated and released. ¹

Emergency rooms can be jam-packed with ill and injured people. ER nurses and doctors have to work fast to determine which patients most need immediate attention, and what to do for each patient.

Studies show that medical errors are made in as many as twenty percent of all emergency room encounters, although only about two percent of errors result in adverse outcomes for the patient. ²

Most of us will have to visit a hospital ER at some point in our lives, for ourselves or because a loved one needs emergency care.

If medical errors in the ER harmed you or a loved one, you’re entitled to pursue a medical malpractice claim.

Common Emergency Room Errors

Hospital emergency rooms can be chaotic and overcrowded, particularly in urban communities.

Caring for a steady stream of ill and injured people, with everything from ear infections to gunshot wounds, means the doctors and staff must make fast diagnosis and treatment decisions.

Because of the inherent urgency and patient volume in most emergency rooms, ER doctors are held to a slightly different standard of care as a doctor who is not as rushed to get to the next patient.

Mistakes happen, and sometimes those mistakes can have devastating consequences for the emergency room patient.

Common ER errors include:

  • Triage Errors: Most of us understand we’ll have to wait to have a broken toe looked at if a heart attack patient comes through the ER door. A triage error is made when a person needing urgent care, like someone having heart attack symptoms, is made to wait behind others with less urgent conditions.
  • Denying Treatment: Emergency rooms are prohibited from denying treatment to women in labor or people who need urgent medical or mental health care, regardless of their ability to pay.
  • Failure to Order Tests: Doctors often need imaging tests, like X-Rays and CT scans, or lab tests to differentiate between conditions that share the same symptoms. Failing to order appropriate medical tests can lead to an incorrect diagnosis.
  • Medication Errors: Serious medication errors include prescribing the wrong medication, ordering the wrong dosage, failing to check for drug allergies and ordering medications that can react to other meds the patent is taking.
  • Misdiagnosis: Diagnostic errors are the most frequent type of emergency room mistake and the most common type of medical error overall. Diagnostic errors include wrong diagnosis, delayed diagnosis, or a missed diagnosis.

Case Summary: Man Paralyzed After ER Misdiagnosis  

Jason Walters went to the Memorial Hospital Emergency Department with severe neck pain and numbness in his arms and legs. He was seen by a doctor who diagnosed him with a neck strain and sent him home.

Within hours of being released from the ER, the 36-year-old Walters was paralyzed from the neck down. The emergency room physician failed to diagnose that Walters was suffering from a herniated disc that was pressing on his spinal cord.

Walters and his attorney filed a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital and the negligent doctor.

The jury found the hospital and physician to be negligent, awarding $15 million in compensation to Jason Walters.

Potential for ER Malpractice

Emergency room doctors and nurses are often on duty for twelve-hour shifts and may end up working longer when the ER is very busy. Overwork and lack of rest can lead to misdiagnoses, not recognizing symptoms, and failure to provide necessary treatment.

In emergency medical care, time is of the essence. Doctors and nurses must quickly move from one patient to another, sometimes without having enough time to thoroughly wash their hands, or properly sterilize examination tools and other devices. Bacteria on these surfaces can enter even the smallest wound, resulting in a serious infection.

Because of the constant flow of people, many with fevers, infections, and other easily transferable medical conditions, the janitorial staff may not be able to keep up with disinfecting the environment. As a result, otherwise healthy patients and their family members may be subject to infectious diseases.

Hospitals with inadequate infection control practices in their emergency departments may be liable for patients injured by a hospital-acquired infection.

Private Hospital Patient Dumping

“Patient dumping” is unethical and illegal. It occurs when a patient comes to a private hospital with a true medical emergency, only to be turned away from the ER because of their inability to pay or provide insurance.

Uninsured patients are sometimes forced to drive to a state or county-run hospital miles away, during which time their condition can worsen. Often these patients are either too embarrassed or don’t know enough to file a complaint.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act

The Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), was originally written as an “anti-dumping” act. EMTALA requires private hospital emergency departments to treat women in active labor and people with emergency medical or mental health conditions, regardless of the person’s ability to pay.

Under EMTALA, the patient can’t be released or transferred to another hospital until their condition has been stabilized. For women in labor, that means the hospital must care for the woman until her baby is delivered and both mother and baby are medically stable.

Once stabilized, the hospital can legally release the patient or refuse further care, so long as the refusal is not discriminatory, for example, because of a person’s race or religion.

Hospitals that don’t have an emergency department are not subject to EMTALA rules. However, you should talk to a medical malpractice attorney if a denial of treatment seriously harmed you.

Building an ER Malpractice Claim

The hospital directly employs most doctors, nurses, and administrative personnel. These employees are paid by the hospital to do a job, and because of that payment arrangement, hospitals become liable for patient injuries caused by these employees.

Most states follow the legal doctrine of “respondeat superior, ” meaning employers must answer for the negligent actions of their employees. The same doctrine applies to employees working in hospital emergency rooms.

If an employee commits an act of negligence while acting outside their scope of employment, the hospital may be able to escape liability, although the negligent employee could be held legally responsible as an individual.

If the emergency room staff were performing their duties as employees when they committed an act of negligence resulting in a patient’s injury, the hospital would be liable for the injured patient’s damages, which can include:

  • The cost of present and future medical bills
  • Out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Present and future lost wages, including long-term disability
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages

Case Summary: $4.7 Million Award for ER Death

Georgia Tagalos was 49 years old when she was taken by ambulance to St. James Hospital Emergency Department with an asthma attack. She was grasping at her throat and unable to speak. By the time an emergency room doctor saw Tagalos, she was losing consciousness.

The first doctor to evaluate Ms. Tagalos was Julie Mills, a resident in training. The attending physician, Dr. Perry Marshall, instructed Mills to intubate Ms. Tagalos.

Mills failed in her first attempt to intubate Ms. Tagalos. After the second attempt, the doctors called for assistance. A total of six attempts were made to put an air tube down her throat while Ms. Tagolas was unable to breathe.

By the time another doctor performed an emergency procedure to create an airway, Ms. Tagolas had already suffered irreversible brain damage from lack of oxygen. Three days later she died.

Attorneys for Giorgia Tagalos’ son, Ted Fragogiannis filed a malpractice claim against the hospital and ER doctors for the wrongful death of his mother.

At trial, the jury found the doctor and hospital to be negligent, awarding $4.7 million in compensation to the family.

Proving ER Malpractice Occurred

To receive compensation for injuries sustained in a hospital emergency room, the injured patient and their attorney will have to show:

  1. The hospital had a duty of care to ensure the patient would not be harmed while being treated.
  2. The hospital breached that duty of care.
  3. As a result of that breach (the negligent act), the patient was injured.
  4. The negligence was the direct and proximate cause of the patient’s injury.
  5. The patient sustained measurable damages.

Why You Need an Attorney

Hospitals and ER doctors are protected by malpractice insurance companies with an army of aggressive defense lawyers paid to fight claimants like you.

The insurance company is only interested in destroying or minimizing your right to compensation. They could care less about the suffering caused by their insured’s medical errors.

Malpractice cases with big wins for the victim are always handled by personal injury attorneys who specialize in medical malpractice.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. The best malpractice attorneys will advance the funds needed to pay for medical experts, discovery and deposition expenses, and anything else needed to win your case.

Most malpractice attorneys represent clients on a contingency fee basis, meaning if they don’t settle the case or win at trial, they won’t get paid.

Keep in mind that every state has a statute of limitations period for filing injury lawsuits. If you were injured in a public hospital emergency room, the deadline could be extremely short.

If you miss the deadline, you’ve lost your chance to pursue compensation, no matter how badly you were injured.

There’s usually no cost for the initial consultation with a malpractice attorney. Don’t wait to find out what a skilled malpractice attorney can do for you.

ER Malpractice Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>