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A hospital will be held liable when its physicians are negligent if they are “ostensible agents”

CASE: Burless v. W. Virginia Univ. Hosp., Inc. REFERENCE: 215 W. Va. 765, 601 S.E.2d 85 (2004) (W.Va Supreme Court) CASE LOCATION: Monongalia Co., W. Va.

In 1998 both Jaclyn Burless and Melony Pritt learned that they were pregnant and went to the West Virginia University Hospital High Risk Clinic and Physicians Office Center for care. Eventually, both Jacklyn and Melony delivered their children, but they both alleged that because of negligence through actions and inactions by the doctors, residents, and nurses at WVUH negligence the infant children suffered severe and permanent mental, neurological, and psychological injuries.

Lawsuits were filed on behalf of the infant children claiming breaches of the standard of care in connection with the management of the labor, and claiming vicarious liability on the part of WVUH based upon a theory of apparent agency between WVUH and the physicians who provided the allegedly negligent care.

WVUH moved for summary judgment claiming that there was no apparent agency relationship between it and the doctors and residents who provided care to Jacklyn or Melony. The circuit court granted summary judgment to WVUH finding that there was nothing in the record demonstrating the creation of an apparent agency relationship between the physicians who treated Jacklyn or Melony.

For purposes of the appeal, since the cases involved the same principal of law, Jacklyn and Melony’s cases were consolidated for purposes of rendering a decision.

After argument, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals sided with our clients Jacklyn and Melony and held that the case should be remanded back to the circuit court for trial, and that WVUH could be held liable for a doctor’s negligence under an apparent agency theory, if the plaintiff established that: (1) the hospital either committed an act that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the physician in question was an agent of the hospital, or, by failing to take an action, created a circumstance that would allow a reasonable person to hold such a belief, and (2) the plaintiff relied on the apparent agency relationship.

If the patient looks to the hospital for services, rather than to an individual physician, and if the patient believes that the hospital or its employees were rendering health care, and considering the totality of the circumstances, the hospital may be liable for the conduct of doctors in its hospital.