March 20, 2017

One of the delicacies of medical malpractice cases lies in who can be held responsible when a patient dies from a medical procedure. 

On March 17, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up a dispute about whether Tampa General Hospital (TGH) could be held liable in a medical malpractice suit. The court did not give reasons for its decision, but we can begin to understand how the facts of future cases will be interpreted.

The estate of Annie Godwin, who died on the operating table during a surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, filed the lawsuit. In 2009, Godwin suffered a tear in a large vein during surgery and died because of heavy bleeding, according to the appeals-court ruling. The Florida Supreme Court’s decision affirms a 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling in favor of TGH.  

The dispute centered on TGH’s relationship with the University of South Florida (USF), which employed two physicians involved in the surgery. TGH is the primary teaching hospital for the university’s College of Medicine. TGH argued in the case that the university employed the physicians and that the hospital had delegated the duty of care and any potential liability to USF.

Conversely, Arthur Lee Godwin alleged that physicians and surgeons who operated on his wife’s colon were functioning as agents of TGH despite the waivers his wife signed. Mrs. Godwin’s husband sued USF, both operating physicians, and TGH, claiming that TGH had a nondelegable duty to provide Mrs. Godwin with nonnegligent surgery and failed to do so. 

A circuit judge and the appeals court cleared TGH in part because the day before her surgery, Mrs. Godwin met with one of the operating physicians to discuss the procedure and sign a Consent & Disclosure for Medical and/or Surgical Procedures, which included language stating that the physicians, surgeons, and assistants were not hospital employees.

The appeals court said the circuit judge properly granted summary judgment for the hospital. “…the physicians were not TGH employees or agents,” explained the ruling, written by Judge Edward LaRose and joined by judges John Badalamenti and James Case. According to the court, the documents signed by Godwin acknowledged the physicians were not employees of the hospital. The court found that the hospital never established a contract with Mrs. Godwin that indicated that it would oversee her care.

In many cases, patients sign and initial hospital forms without reading the language of the documents. Too, frequently patients do not feel empowered to contest the language in those forms. As the patient is being prepped for surgery, all they care about is getting treated for their condition. During that window, patients may not seriously consider their medical malpractice options or who is responsible if something goes amiss.

An important takeaway is that patients must be advocates for their own care. If your loved one has been unnecessarily injured or killed after a medical procedure and you believe a physician or hospital is at fault and committed negligent acts, you may be able to recover compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Call Corless Barfield Trial Group at 813-258-4998 or 877-517-5595 for a free consultation to discuss your case today.