Stewart v. Superior Court

(Oct. 12, 2017, E067316) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2017 WL 4544658]

Hospital’s failure to respect patient and guardian’s rights to decide medical care issues supports Elder Abuse liability

Plaintiff sued a hospital, treating physicians, and others for wrongful death and other causes of action following the death of a patient who had given plaintiff his power of attorney for health care decisions. The hospital moved for summary adjudication of the Elder Abuse, fraud by concealment, and medical battery causes of action. Plaintiff opposed the motion, presenting evidence that the patient died following unauthorized and unnecessary cardiac surgery, and that the hospital had conducted a closed ethics committee meeting where the committee voided her power of attorney appointment and authorized the surgery to proceed. 

The trial court granted summary adjudication for the hospital, ruling that (1) the Elder Abuse claim failed as a matter of law because the hospital’s actions did not implicate custodial duties owed to the decedent; (2) the fraudulent concealment claim failed because the hospital owed no fiduciary duty to its patient; and (3) the medical battery claim failed because the physician who performed the surgery was not employed by the hospital. Plaintiff sought writ relief. 

The Court of Appeal granted writ relief. In the published portion of its opinion, the court held the trial court erred by summarily adjudicating plaintiff’s Elder Abuse cause of action. The court reasoned that the patient was a dependent adult who was in hospital custody and relied on the hospital to meet his fundamental needs. Moreover, the substantial impairment of a dependent adult’s right to autonomy in the medical decision making process may constitute actionable “neglect” within the meaning of Welfare and Institutions Code section 15610.57, subdivisions (a)(1) and (2). Thus, a reasonable jury could find that the hospital recklessly or fraudulently failed to meet its custodial obligations toward its patient by authorizing surgery against plaintiff’s consent at the ethics committee meeting where plaintiff was not allowed to participate (tending to support liability for Elder Abuse). In the unpublished portion of its opinion, the Court of Appeal held that the hospital could be liable for fraudulent concealment based on its failure to inform plaintiff of ethics committee meeting and the surgery it had authorized, and that it could be liable for medical battery based on evidence that it was sufficiently involved in allowing the surgery to be said to have “ ‘performed a medical procedure.’ ”

This bulletin was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.