Clarification on Definition of Professional Negligence in Hospital Settings

Recently the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of a hospital over a whether non-medical negligence occurring in a hospital is “professional negligence” or “ordinary negligence.”  This case shows that these details can be the difference between dismissal on statute of limitations or not.

In Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, there were bedrails raised on the patient’s bed at the doctors orders. This is common if the patient is at an increased risk of falling out of bed. Despite the bedrails being raised, when the patient attempted to get out of bed, the latch failed causing the rail to collapse. Without any support the patient fell to the floor and was injured.

Just before reaching two years since the incident the patient sued the hospital on premises liability and general negligence theories. The hospital demurred on the ground that the complaint was untimely, because when suing a healthcare provider for professional negligence, the complaint must be filed within 3 years, or within one year of discovery, whichever is sooner (CCP §340.5.)

Since plaintiff was on notice of potential negligence as soon as she fell, the hospital argued she was required to file suit within one year.  Plaintiff argued that her claim arose from something less than professional negligence, because once the doctor ordered the bedrails in a raised position, there was no further medical decision-making required. Therefore, she argued, her causes of action for premises liability and ordinary negligence would be governed by the 2-year statute of limitations set out in CCP §335.1. The hospital countered that because the injury occurred while the patient was in a bed on the hospital, any negligence would be professional in nature, rather than ordinary.

 

Over the years there has been quite a bit of judicial debate as to whether this would be “ordinary” negligence or “healthcare professional” negligence.  The Supreme Court clarified this, holding that maintenance of hospital equipment sounded in professional negligence, rather than ordinary negligence, applied the shorter statute of limitations, and dismissed the case.  Had the plaintiff slipped and fell coming up the steps or ramp to the entry of the hospital, it is probable that the Court would have ruled differently after determining it was a ordinary negligence case.  There is at least one other case pending before the Court involving a fall on a wet floor shortly after being mopped, but we still wait for the Court’s ruling and analysis for further clarification.

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