Hospital Not Liable on Theory of Apparent Agency – Rosenfeldt v. Burke Medical Group

In a Cook County medical malpractice lawsuit, the Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled that a hospital could not be held liable for the potential negligence of one of its independent contractors in Lamb-Rosenfeldt v. Burke Medical Group, 2012 IL App (1st), 101558. The case was brought by the decedent’s daughter, who contended that the defendant doctor contributed to the her mother’s death by failing to timely diagnose her lung cancer.

Lee Lamb began seeing Dr. Kathryn Burke in November 2004. However, Lamb had met Dr. Burke on several previous occasions when Dr. Burke visited the hair salon where Lamb worked. And while Lamb did have her own physician at the time, she would still ask Dr. Burke questions about her medical treatment. It was during the course of those conversations that Dr. Burke became aware of Lamb’s medical history, including her diagnosis of lung cancer in 1996. So when Lamb became dissatisfied with her current primary care physician in 2004, Dr. Burke was the natural choice for a replacement.

When Dr. Burke began treating Lamb in 2004, Lamb was not actively being treated for her lung cancer. However, according to the medical malpractice complaint, Dr. Burke ignored all the warning signs that Lamb’s cancer was recurring: weight loss, frequent coughing, swallowing difficulty, fatigue, and aspiration of food. Lamb was ultimately diagnosed with a recurrence of her lung cancer in February 2006; she died just eight months later in October 2006. The complaint alleged that if Dr. Burke had recognized the signs and symptoms of her lung cancer at an earlier date that Lamb could have survived.

The current appellate court ruling is not about whether or not Dr. Burke was negligent in her treatment of Lamb, but rather whether St. James Hospitalwas liable for the actions of its independent contractor, Dr. Burke. The plaintiff alleged that St. James Hospital was liable under the theory of apparent authority because Dr. Burke appeared to be an agent/employee of St. James Hospital.

While most of the office visits Dr. Burke had with Lamb were conducted at her private practice, Burke Medical Group, Dr. Burke also treated Lamb at St. James Hospital . And while Dr. Burke was the chief of the medical staff at St. James, she was not an actual employee of St. James Hospital; Dr. Burke never received any payment or salary directly from St. James and was not covered under its medical liability insurance.

In its review of the medical malpractice case, the Illinois Appellate Court cited the definition of apparent authority according to Gilbert v. Sycamore Municipal Hospital, 156 Ill. 2d 511, 525 (1993):

[a] principal will be bound not only by that authority which he actually gives to another, but also by the authority which he appears to give. Apparent authority in an agent is the authority which the principal knowingly permits the agent to assume, or the authority which the principal holds the agent out as possessing. It is the authority which a reasonably prudent person, exercising diligence and discretion, in view of the principal’s conduct, would naturally suppose the agent to possess.

In its defense, St. James pointed to the Consent for Medical Treatment that Lamb signed each time she received treatment at St. James. The consent contained a section entitled “STATEMENT OF UNDERSTANDING: PHYSICIANS ARE NOT EMPLOYEES OF THE MEDICAL CENTER.” And while such consent forms are taken into consideration, simply signing one does not preclude a court from finding that there was apparent authority.

However, after reviewing the case facts, the appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling that St. James was not liable under the apparent authority theory. Even if Dr. Burke had held himself out to be an agent of St. James Hospital, the court found that Lamb had not relied on that relationship when making her treatment decisions. Rather, Lamb fit the category of a patient seeking out the care of a specific doctor; even Lamb’s daughter testified that Lamb was unaware that Dr. Burke was the chief of staff at St. James. Since there was no evidence that Lamb had relied on Dr. Burke being an agent of St. James, the hospital could not be held liable under the theory of apparent agency and were therefore dismissed from the medical malpractice lawsuit.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois medical negligence cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Oak Lawn, Justice, Darien, Naperville, Carol Stream, Schiller Park, and Bridgeview.

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