A recent decision of the NSW Court of Appeal1 shows that medical centres providing premises and administrative services to doctors may be liable for a significant share of damages where follow up systems have broken down, even where there has also been a clear breach by a medical practitioner involved.
The factual background was relatively simple. A patient attended a screening for sexually transmitted diseases. Her HIV test did not give a clear result. The GP Dr J. arranged for her to be sent correspondence asking her to attend for further testing, but the address on the patient’s file was not current, and she did not receive the letter.
The patient re-attended shortly afterward in any case where another doctor, Dr G, negligently told her that her results were clear. Approximately one week later she had unprotected intercourse with CS who contracted HIV and pursued a claim against Dr J, Dr G and the medical centre.
Dr J and Dr G settled the claim for $745,000 plus costs.
Dr J and Dr G then pursued claims for contribution from the medical centre. The medical centre resisted the claims on the basis that given the administrative structure in place it owed no duty to CS, that its actions did not in any event cause CS harm and that contracts in place with Dr J and (through a corporate entity) Dr G entitled it to indemnity from them.
The medical centre effectively functioned as provider of a working space, administrative services and equipment and support staff. The doctors were not employees of the centre but paid it a proportion of the fees they generated. The centre took possession of all the medical records.
The Court of Appeal noted that what was being conducted was still a medical practice. The judges had little difficulty concluding that the practice owed CS a duty of care and that its breach of that duty materially contributed to the harm suffered by CS.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal ordered that the medical centre contribute 40% of the settlement funds paid to CS on behalf of Dr G and Dr J. The basis of the percentage figure was not explored in detail (other than to say the medical centre’s liability was no less and possibly more than Dr J’s).
The case highlights the high standard expected from those involved in the provision of medical services (even where that role is administrative) and illustrates the serious and costly consequences that can arise from something as simple as failing to update a patient’s address or other contact details.