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Who Decides When a Patient Leaves the Hospital, the Injured or the Doctor?

Consider this hypothetical. A man attends festivities on New Year’s Eve, has several glasses of champagne, and leaves the party by himself. Unbeknownst to the party-thrower and party-goers, the man has a long-established drinking problem. After the party, he goes to a bar and imbibes excessively, rendering the man barely conscious and unable to get himself home. The barkeep identifies the issue and calls an ambulance.

The man is admitted to the hospital for alcohol detox treatment and is given a prescription sedative known to relieve alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The sedative must be administered carefully as too little will have no effect, but too much will only increase the man’s stupor, or worse.

After a few hours of rest and treatment with the sedative, the man believes he is better and wants to leave the hospital and go home. However, it is clear to hospital staff that the man is very much not better; at this stage he is both intoxicated from alcohol intake and under the effects of the sedative. It is below freezing outside with icy conditions. Hospital staff warn the man against leaving the hospital, but they are unable to force him to stay. Their only option is to have him sign a release form stating that he is leaving the hospital against medical advice. Signing this form also waives his right to bring any lawsuit against the hospital. The man leaves and makes it a few blocks down the street before passing out in the ice and snow for several hours. He suffers from hypothermia and loses eight fingers.

He somewhat miraculously makes it home alive and contacts a personal injury attorney about pursuing a medical malpractice action against the hospital. In court, the hospital produces the release form, signed by the man, releasing them from any liability. The man’s injury attorney argues that the form should be thrown out because the man was under the effects of both alcohol and the sedative medication when he signed it. The court case drags on for years, but who is responsible? Is this negligence, medical malpractice or just bad luck?

As for the passage of time, Idaho imposes a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. The man brought his claim well within that time frame. As for the merits of the arguments, the court finds that the hospital is completely without responsibility. There is no medical malpractice because the hospital met its duty to warn the man and obtained a signed waiver. But, this result tugs at the jury. The man really was not in possession of his faculties when he signed that waiver. And he’s disabled for life.

This scenario, and many others like it, are examples of close call cases where reasonable people could come down on either side. Cases like these require the very best representation. At the Rossman Law Group, experienced attorneys are on-hand to diligently litigate every case, close or otherwise, to persuade judges and juries to come down on your side of your case.

This publication is intended as an information source for clients, prospective clients, and colleagues and constitutes attorney advertising. The content should not be considered legal advice and readers should not act upon information in this publication without individualized professional counsel.