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Can a Health Professional be Liable for Emotional Distress?

Healthcare Provider "Emotional Distress" Liability

We often talk about medical malpractice in terms of the physical injuries sustained by the victim. But more often than not, it is the emotional trauma that leaves the most lasting effects. In the case of a misdiagnosis, for instance, a patient may experience significant stress as the result of incorrectly believing they have a potentially fatal disease.

Appeals Court Reverses Summary Judgment for Hospital That Operated on Patient Without Sterilizing Equipment

On the flip side, there is also the anxiety that comes with not knowing if you have developed a serious condition as the result of a healthcare provider’s negligent acts. Recently, an Ohio appeals court addressed one such scenario. Specifically, the court was asked whether or not a patient could sue to recover damages after she spent several months thinking she might have acquired HIV or another serious infection.

Here is what happened. The victim underwent surgery at the defendant’s hospital. After the procedure, the victim and her husband learned that the defendant’s personnel “had not sterilized the equipment used to perform the surgery.” This meant there was a significant possibility the victim acquired an infection during the surgery.

emotional distress

The defendant then implemented an extensive protocol to determine whether the victim contracted “a bacterial infection, HIV, and/or hepatitis.” This protocol required the victim submit to a number of blood draws over a six-month period. The process left both the victim and her husband in what they described as a state of “emotional distress.”

Consequently, the victim and her husband sued the hospital and several related defendants. In effect, the lawsuit alleged professional negligence and “negligent infliction of emotional distress.” The defense moved for summary judgment, arguing that since the victim never actually had an infection, she had no grounds to bring an emotional distress claim. The trial court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

But the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Tenth Appellate District disagreed and reversed the grant of summary judgment to the defense. The 10th District noted at the outset that “there is no serious question that operating on a patient with implements which have not been sterilized is below the standard of medical care.” The question was therefore whether or not the victim was actually “harmed” as the result of the defendants’ professional negligence. The appeals court concluded that such harms did exist. First, there was the “physical assaults” the victim endured in the form of the repeated blood draws. Second, and in contrast to the defense’s arguments, the appeals court said there was a viable claim for emotional distress. “In short,” the court observed, “there was a serious risk that [the victim] had acquired a disease which could affect the rest of her life or even end it.” Given this, “When a hospital has to admit it may have infected a patient with a serious disease, the hospital is on notice that the patient will suffer serious emotional distress.”

Contact a Cleveland Medical Malpractice Lawyer Today

The appeals court’s ruling is a victory for common sense and the rights of patients. Hospitals should not be allowed to walk away from the serious emotional trauma suffered by patients as the result of blatant professional negligence. If you or a family member have been injured in any way by a healthcare provider’s actions and you need advice from a qualified Cleveland medical malpractice attorney, contact Tittle & Perlmuter at (216) 308-1522 today.