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Sovereign Immunity and Vicarious Liability in Negligence Lawsuits Against Government-Run Nursing Homes

The idea of sovereign immunity is one that dates back many centuries to an old English principle that the monarchy is immune from criminal or civil prosecution.
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In America, government is the “king,” and most government agencies are immune from liability except under certain circumstances. In Florida, in instances where the state waives sovereign immunity, individuals may recover up to $100,000 for themselves and another $100,000 for dependents. Anything above this amount must be pursued through a Claims Bill, on which the legislature must vote. (All of this is pursuant to Florida Statute 768.28.)

So why does all of this matter for someone interested in filing a nursing home negligence lawsuit? Because when it comes to sovereign immunity, many medical facilities – including nursing homes – are getting creative about their funding in order to claim it, and therefore limit their liability.

It began with clinics and hospitals that were owned and run by local and state governments. Then we began to see hospitals that accepted a very small percentage of their overall revenue from public funds. These entities would then call themselves “special taxing districts,” and then attempt to avail themselves of sovereign immunity.

So what we end up with are enormous, multi-million dollar private companies that are labeling themselves as state agents – and getting away with it.

It’s not clear exactly how many government-run nursing homes are operational in Florida, but we know a fair number of them are for veterans. (For example, the Alexander Nininger State Veterans Nursing Home in Pembroke Pines is one.)

In cases where plaintiffs wish to pursue a negligence claim against a government-run nursing home, it’s important to have an understanding of whether the person who was negligent was in fact an employee of the facility. In previous Florida tort law, plaintiffs often claim that the nursing home or medical facility is legally liable for all care that takes place inside its walls – whether by physicians or nurses or aides.

This falls under the principal of “non-delegable duty,” which holds that hospitals and health care providers owe a duty to guarantee every patient non-negligent care, even when that care is delegated by the facility to independent contractors. The principal holds the health care provider would vicariously liable for the actions of everyone who provides care in the facility – not just those who are technically employees.

(Vicarious liability is the common law principle that a superior can be held responsible for the actions of a subordinate.)

But these cases have been difficult to litigate, as health care providers fight them vigorously and there is no common law in Florida that allows for broad application of non-delegable duty on the part of health care providers – particularly those that are government-owned.

A recent case out of Wyoming touched on all these issues, and illustrates how tough these cases can be to win.

In Campbell County Memorial Hosp. v. Pfeifle, the plaintiff filed a medical malpractice action against a county-run hospital under the state
s government-claims act. The plaintiff contended that a certified nurse anesthetist had acted negligently. Although the anesthetist was technically employed by a company contracted by the hospital, the plaintiff sought to hold the hospital vicariously liable for her actions.

The hospital, in turn, filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that a government hospital could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of independent contractors or non-employees.

Initially, the district court denied this motion, but the state supreme court later reversed it, holding that previous case law had not established an implied waiver of sovereign immunity.

In these kinds of cases, attorneys can look at potentially proving that the worker was in fact an employee of the facility, despite their formal title. It’s also important when dealing with negligent claims against government-run facilities that sovereign immunity is appropriately considered.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Campbell County Memorial Hosp. v. Pfeifle, Jan. 7, 2014, Wyoming Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Elder Care Negligence in Florida’s Assisted Living Facilities, Dec. 11, 2013, Pahokee Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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