When Are Hospitals Liable for Elder Abuse?

Liability can be a complex matter, especially in the medical world. Most forms of medical care pose at least a small risk, so ethical healthcare facilities take care to receive informed consent from all patients before performing most procedures. As such, medical malpractice plaintiffs must demonstrate that they either did not consent to a procedure or that they were harmed by particularly negligent caretakers if the facility is to be found liable for their injuries.

However, another form of hospital liability is often overlooked: institutional liability for abuse. Patients are often vulnerable to abuse from their caretakers, especially older adults. When it occurs, medical facilities are often considered responsible for the behavior of their employees, particularly when management is aware of bad behavior and does not take steps to correct it. 

As such, hospitals are frequently liable for elder abuse performed by their staff. Here’s what you need to know about hospital abuse liability and what you can do if you think a loved one is being abused by their medical team. 

Types of Hospital Elder Abuse

When an older adult is in the hospital, the facility and medical workers are responsible for their health and safety. Unfortunately, some healthcare professionals do not respect their patients. Combined with the fact that medical professionals are in a position of authority over hospitalized people, hospitals become ripe for various forms of abusive behavior. During their time at the facility, older adults may experience:

  • Physical Abuse: Restraining an adult against their will without a valid, medically necessary reason is considered physical abuse, as is hitting, pushing, slapping, or tripping them. These behaviors can occur during in-patient stays if the staff does not respect the patient’s autonomy. 
  • Sexual Abuse: This can include touching the victim without their consent, making jokes or comments about their body, or forcing them to watch sexual acts. Many older adults are victims of sexual assault during in-patient care because they lack the mental or physical capacity to object. They may also fear suffering other forms of neglect or violence if they speak up. 
  • Emotional Abuse: This may include insulting the victim, threatening them, yelling at them, ignoring them, or preventing them from seeing their loved ones. This is one of the most common forms of abuse suffered by older adults in care, but also one of the hardest to prove. 
  • Medical Abuse, Neglect, or Abandonment: People in the hospital are particularly vulnerable to this, which can include neglecting their medical needs, ignoring their complaints or requests, leaving them without care, or overmedicating them on purpose. 

Hospital Liability for Abuse in California

In 2022, the Second District Court of Appeal for California confirmed that hospitals can be held accountable for the abusive behavior of their employees. In the case, two elderly adults sued a Ventura, California, psychiatric hospital and one of its employees for the sexual abuse they suffered. The case was decided in their favor after it was determined that the hospital hired the abusive employee despite knowing his history of sexual misconduct.

While the hospital appealed, the Second District Court of Appeals upheld the initial decision. The justices on the court found that the hospital was operated “recklessly and maliciously” and therefore was liable for the harm its employees caused. 

Furthermore, the ruling has clarified that hospitals are held to a stricter standard than other employers regarding abusive employees. Specifically, while abuse is usually considered an individual behavior for which employers are not responsible, hospital patients are uniquely vulnerable, and medical workers have unusual control. As such, the court found that hospitals must take extra precautions to protect patients from harm or be held liable for the harm caused. 

Finally, the court found that elder abuse or that of dependent adults are not subject to the pain and suffering cap under California’s medical malpractice laws. Harm that is not specifically considered medical malpractice may be eligible for greater damage awards. 

Identifying Signs of Neglect and Abuse of Older Adults in Hospitals

If you have an older loved one in the hospital, you should know the signs of abuse. Many older adults are ashamed of falling victim to abusers, even though there was nothing they could do to prevent it. They may not feel comfortable talking about it, which can cause the harm to continue. If you notice the following issues, your loved one may be suffering, and you could be their best hope for justice:

  • Has unexplained injuries
  • Develops preventable conditions like bedsores
  • Experiences sudden personality or behavior changes
  • Lacks basic medical aids like glasses or dentures
  • Appears to be lacking hygiene
  • Is restrained despite no tendency toward aggression or self-harm

Furthermore, as COVID-19 restrictions ease, you should not be barred from visiting your loved one. If the hospital tries to prevent you from seeing them, it may be a sign that they are being treated poorly, and the facility is trying to hide it.

Protecting Your Older Loved Ones From Harm

If your loved one has suffered elder abuse at a hospital, you have options. In California, medical facilities can be held liable for the actions of their employees. However, proving it occurred can be difficult. That’s why it’s critical to discuss your case with expert San Francisco hospital abuse lawyers.At the Law Offices of Michael Oran, APC, we specialize in helping our clients hold negligent and abusive medical facilities accountable for the harm they cause. We will discuss your needs, work with you to determine the best course of action, and represent you in court during your elder abuse case. Learn more about how we can assist you and your older loved one by scheduling your consultation with our California elder abuse attorneys now.

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