Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



Under the doctrine of hospital corporate liability, a hospital has a nondelegable, direct duty to provide adequate care to all of its patients.' This duty is not a product of a master-servant or a principal-agent relationship, nor is hospital tort liability predicated on a showing of vicarious liability, because the hospital's liability flows directly from the hospital to its patients. Consequently, a hospital may be liable for the negligent act of an independent staff physician, even if that physician is an independent contractor. The corporate liability, or corporate negligence, doctrine thus extends potential liability beyond the sphere of respondeat superior.

Although many courts have recognized corporate liability as an "emerging trend" throughout the country, reviewing courts should consider carefully the reasons supporting the doctrine and the ways in which many courts now apply it. As health care issues play an increasingly greater role in American society, courts have a greater obligation to apply articulable guidelines uniformly when determining hospital liability. Unfortunately, despite the courts' ability to rectify the existing uncertainty, they have treated corporate liability disparately thus far. The corporate liability doctrine has a useful and practical application but only when applied in limited and clearly defined circumstances.

Part II of this Note discusses hospitals' evolution into modern, health-care providing entities. An examination of the emergence of the modern hospital as a corporate institution provides the framework for the creation and application of the corporate liability doctrine. Part III examines the doctrine of corporate liability as a response to the significant changes in the modern hospital, discussing and analyzing the duties that the major cases have articulated and imposed. Part IV discusses the evolution of hospital liability from the exposure-free beginnings of charitable immunity through the present- day imposition of corporate liability. Part V analyzes the standards and guidelines courts may consider in determining the imposition of hospital corporate liability. This Part primarily explores the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) guidelines as a source that courts may use to assess potential hospital corporate liability. Part VI shows that the courts have not applied the standards uniformly or consistently, primarily because they have relied on different standards at different times or have applied the same set of standards inconsistently. Thus, courts irresponsibly have allowed the corporate liability doctrine to remain imprecisely defined, leaving hospitals exposed to almost limitless liability without the reasonable ability to take preventive measures." Finally, Part VII suggests a more effective method for assessing hospital liability, allowing courts to apply the standards more evenly.