Illinois Appellate Court Upholds Doctrine of Apparent Authority in Medical Negligence Lawsuit

Christina Yarbrough and David Goodpaster brought a medical negligence lawsuit against Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH) and Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation (NMFF) after the premature birth of their daughter, Hayley Joe Goodpaster. This case came to the Illinois Appellate Court by the request of NMH regarding the doctrine of apparent authority in the medical negligence context. The trial court certified a question of law pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308.

The question was this: “Can a hospital be held vicariously liable under the doctrine of apparent agency set forth in Gilbert v. Sycamore Mun. Hosp., 156 Ill.2d 511 (Ill. 1993), and its progeny for the acts of the employees of an unrelated, independent clinic that is not a party to the present litigation?”

The case involved Christina Yarbrough, who believed she was pregnant. She went to Erie Family Health Center Inc. (Erie) a federally funded, not-for-profit clinic on Nov. 14, 2005 after searching the Internet for a nearby clinic offering free pregnancy testing. After receiving a positive pregnancy test, healthcare workers at Erie inquired where Yarbrough would receive prenatal care. Yarbrough was advised that if she obtained prenatal care from Erie, she would deliver at NMH and would receive testing and additional care at NMH, including ultrasounds. She was given a pamphlet and a flyer with information regarding scheduling tours and classes at NMH. The plaintiffs in this case alleged that based on her knowledge of NMH’s reputation and the information provided by Erie, Yarbrough believed that if she received prenatal care from Erie, she would be receiving treatment from NMH health care workers.

It was alleged that when Yarbrough was 8 weeks pregnant, she experienced vaginal bleeding and went to the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center (Advocate) on Nov. 30, 2005. An ultrasound was performed and she was diagnosed with having a bicornuate uterus. The emergency department notified Erie. Yarbrough received an ultrasound at Erie on Dec. 2, 2005 and she was told that she had a shortened cervix, but did not have a bicornuate uterus. No other follow-up regarding a uterine abnormality was done.  She continued to receive prenatal care at Erie. She also received a 20-week ultrasound on Feb. 21, 2006 at NMH, which was interpreted by Dr. William Grobman. It was claimed that as a result of the failure to identify and address appropriately Yarbrough’s bicornuate uterus and shortened cervix, she delivered Hayley Goodpaster prematurely at 26 weeks gestation on April 8, 2006 by emergency Cesarean section. As a result of the premature birth, Hayley Goodpaster suffered numerous medical complications.

Summary judgment was entered in favor of NMH after the plaintiffs filed their initial lawsuit on Dec. 8, 2009 alleging medical negligence by Dr. Grobman, as an actual or apparent agent of NMFF, in performing and interpreting Yarbrough’s 20-week ultrasound. Count II of the lawsuit alleged medical negligence against NMH based on the prenatal care Yarbrough was provided at Erie claiming that Erie was NMH’s actual or apparent agent. NMH moved for summary judgment.

The trial court granted the motion as to all claims related to Erie as NMH’s agent. The trial judge did allow plaintiff to file an amended complaint. An amended complaint was filed on Aug. 23, 2013, which alleged medical negligence against NMFF in Count I based on Dr. Grobman’s conduct. In Count II the plaintiffs alleged medical negligence against NMH based on the doctrine of apparent authority. The plaintiffs alleged that healthcare providers at Erie were the apparent agents of NMH and rendered negligent prenatal care in choosing not to properly scan and diagnose Yarbrough for a shortened cervix and bicornuate uterus, leading to the preterm delivery.

Under the doctrine of apparent authority, a hospital can be held vicariously liable for the negligent acts of a physician providing care at the hospital, regardless if the physician is an independent contractor, unless the patient knows, or should have known, that the physician is an independent contractor. Gilbert v. Sycamore Mun. Hosp., 156 Ill.2d 511, 524-25 (1993). Plaintiffs alleged that NMH held out Erie as its agents in its published materials and on its website.  Plaintiffs alleged that Northwestern Memorial Health Care (NMHC) published annual reports and community service reports that discussed Erie.  On the NMH’s website, plaintiffs alleged that NMHC listed Erie under “Our Health Partners.”

At Yarbrough’s deposition, she stated that she was under the impression that Erie Family Health Center and Northwestern Memorial Hospital were the same entity. She believed that to be the case because the delivery was at NMH.

Under the Gilbert decision, a plaintiff must establish the three factors to hold a hospital liable under the doctrine of apparent authority for acts of independent-contractor physicians:

“(1) the hospital, or its agent, acted in a manner that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the individual who was alleged to be negligent was an employee or agent of the hospital; (2) where the acts of the agent create the appearance of authority, the plaintiff must also prove that the hospital had knowledge of and acquiesced in them; and (3) the plaintiff acted in reliance upon the conduct of the hospital or its agent, consistent with ordinary care and prudence.”  Gilbert, 156 Ill.2d at 525.

After carefully analyzing all three factors, the appeals panel concluded by answering the certified question in the affirmative. A hospital may be held under the doctrine under apparent agency for the acts of the employees of an independent clinic that is not a party to the litigation, assuming that the plaintiff establishes the elements of apparent authority as set forth in Gilbert. The court remanded this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Christina Yarbrough, et al. v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation, 2016 IL App (1st) 141585 (August 19, 2016).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence cases, birth trauma injury cases, wrongful death cases and brain injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Hickory Hills, Justice, Blue Island, Alsip, Harvey, Dolton, Oak Forest, Park Ridge, Prospect Heights, Mount Prospect, Buffalo Grove, Highland Park, Glencoe, Wilmette, Evanston, Skokie, Lincolnwood, Lincolnshire, Palatine and Rolling Meadows, Ill.

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