If an elderly patient visits an outpatient healthcare facility and is not advised to seek an opinion from a specialist, can that outpatient healthcare facility be liable for elder neglect? According to a recent article from the Courthouse News Service, the California Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of an outpatient healthcare facility in such a case. The court’s decision in Winn v. Pioneer Medical Group, Inc. suggests a limiting of the reach of the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act.
What do San Diego residents need to know about this recent case and its potential impact on elder abuse lawsuits?
Facts of Winn v. Pioneer Medical Group, Inc.
How did this case begin? According to the decision, the plaintiffs’ mother (now deceased), Mrs. Cox, received outpatient treatment from the defendant, an outpatient healthcare facility, for a painful circulation condition affecting her lower legs. Mrs. Cox began receiving treatment at the healthcare facility in 2004. By 2007, doctors at the facility who had been treating her for the previous three years diagnosed her with a serious vascular condition and recommended she return to the facility for a “follow-up visit in two months.” At that time, the doctors at the outpatient healthcare facility did not recommend that Mrs. Cox see a vascular specialist.
Over the next two years, Mrs. Cox continued to have serious medical problems related to her condition. She continued to visit the outpatient healthcare facility for treatment. While the doctors there performed procedures and prescribed antibiotics, they never referred Mrs. Cox to a vascular specialist. By March 2009, Mrs. Cox’s vascular condition had worsened dramatically. According to the decision, she “was admitted to the hospital with symptoms consistent with ischemia and gangrene.” Shortly thereafter, in March and April 2009 respectively, doctors at a hospital performed an amputation below the knee, and later an above-the-knee amputation. By January 2010, Mrs. Cox required hospitalization for blood poisoning related to her condition, and “she died several days later,” according to the decision.
Mrs. Cox’s daughter filed a claim of neglect under California’s Elder Abuse Act, arguing that the doctors at the outpatient healthcare facility had committed elder neglect by failing to refer Mrs. Cox to a vascular specialist.
Elder Neglect Requires a Caretaking or Custodial Relationship
The trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs, but the appeals court reversed in favor of the facility. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which determined that a valid claim under the Elder Abuse Act does “require a caretaking or custodial relationship—where a person has assumed significant responsibility for attending to one or more of those basic needs of the elder or dependent adult that an able-bodied and fully competent adult would ordinarily be capable of managing without assistance.”
In other words, the outpatient healthcare facility’s failures look more like medical negligence than elder abuse. The language of the Elder Abuse Act requires more than just a doctor-patient relationship for a negligent act to rise to the level of elder abuse.
The decision could make it more difficult for injured patients to file elder neglect claims against healthcare providers, but each case is different. If you have questions about filing an elder abuse lawsuit, you should discuss your situation with an experienced San Diego elder abuse attorney as soon as possible. Contact the Walton Law Firm for more information.
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(photo courtesy of Kenn W. Kiser)