Case Profile: Adamski v. Tacoma General Hospital

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When most people think of personal injury cases, they imagine circumstances that don't impact people other than the victims and defendants. Some cases, however, have effects on people who aren’t injured or being sued at the time; these are the cases that set precedents that may be referenced in later legal proceedings.

Adamski v. Tacoma General Hospital is one such case. On January 9, 1974, Richard Adamski was playing basketball when he injured his finger. The break was a nasty one, with part of the broken bone protruding from a gash on his finger. Mr. Adamski’s friend helped him to apply a crude splint, and made a makeshift bandage for the wound. After that, Mr. Adamski continued to play basketball.

That evening, after the game, Mr. Adamski went to Tacoma General Hospital and explained his condition to a nurse and Dr. Tsoi. His wound was irrigated, debrided, and cleansed at the hospital. Shortly afterwards, his hand began to swell and hurt, but when he called the ER where he had received treatment a nurse told him that this was not unusual after a bone has been broken. He called again the next day, and was once again told that his symptoms were normal and he didn’t need to go back to the emergency room. By the time Mr. Adamski was seen by another doctor at a different hospital, he had a deep infection of the hand.

Is a hospital responsible for a doctor’s negligence?

Mr. Adamski brought an action for damages against Dr. Tsoi, Tacoma Emergency Care Physicians, Inc., P.S. (TECP), and Tacoma General. Here’s the part that made this case different from a standard malpractice case: Tacoma General moved for summary judgement in its favor, arguing that it couldn’t be held liable for the actions of Dr. Tsoi. They argued that Dr. Tsoi was an independent contractor, not an employee, and that they couldn’t be held liable for damages caused by an independent contractor working in their building. 

The court found Tacoma General Hospital initially not liable for damages. Mr. Adamski appealed the decision. At that time, the court found that even though Dr. Tsoi was a contractor, he was performing an “inherent function of the hospital.” Mr. Adamski had a reasonable belief that he was being treated by an employee of Tacoma General Hospital, and the hospital was “holding out” Dr. Tsoi as if he were an employee. 

A decision rendered decades ago still affects cases today

Many hospitals do not staff their emergency rooms with doctors who work for them full time. Instead, they contract these positions out to companies that provide the doctors. If the court had ruled the other way in Adamski v. Tacoma General Hospital, hospitals might not be held liable for the actions of doctors they had hired as contractors.

When a patient comes to an emergency room, their first concern isn’t the employment status of the doctor. They may not even realize that they have been treated by a contractor until they get a separate bill in the mail, or until something goes wrong and they have to file a lawsuit for medical malpractice.  

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