What is Patient Abandonment?

Patient abandonment is a continuing issue in the United States. It involves a doctor, nurse, or other caregiver failing to provide the care a vulnerable patient needs and comes in several forms. Abandonment of this kind is a type of medical negligence that warrants legal action when it causes harm.

While patient abandonment in Washington State and throughout the country is not a popular topic, it remains a serious issue that can have severe, if not fatal, consequences. Learning more about it is a way to protect  yourself and your loved ones from this type of medical malpractice and seek compensation in the event of abandonment-related injuries.

What are some examples of patient abandonment?

Common examples of patient abandonment include:

  • An in-home caregiver failing to appear and provide sufficient care during pre-specified hours.
  • Insufficient hospital, urgent care center, or private practice staffing.
  • The medical staff failed to reach out to patients requiring follow-up care.
  • The medical staff scheduled the patient’s appointment too far in advance, despite the patient needing critical care as soon as possible.
  • A nurse or other staff member failed to relay a question from a patient to a doctor.
  • General lack of quality communication among doctors and staff members.
  • Staff disorganization, such as failing to return patient phone calls or messages.

Patient abandonment does not occur if:

  • The patient violates the hospital or doctor’s policies.
  • The doctor, nurse, or other caregiver does not have the skills and experience to provide the patient with the right care.
  • Legal or ethical issues occur during the treatment process.
  • The patient does not adhere to the doctor or other caregiver’s recommendations, such as taking a specific prescription medication dosage at predetermined times each day.
  • There are not enough medical supplies, equipment, or other resources to provide sufficient care.
  • The patient repeatedly missed or canceled appointments.

What are the elements of patient abandonment?

To recognize patient abandonment as malpractice, several elements must be present. First, there must be an established relationship between the patient and the doctor or caregiver. An established relationship means the physician or caregiver has agreed to provide specific care and that the patient is currently under that physician’s care. Second, the abandonment must have occurred while the patient still needed treatment or other care to prevent serious health problems. This timeframe is referred to as the “critical stage.”

The remaining elements include the doctor or caregiver’s sudden abandonment of the patient, with the incident happening so quickly the patient was unable to find an adequate replacement in a timely manner. Limited resources can also interfere with the patient getting the treatment they need immediately. Because the patient was unable to receive the care they required, they suffered health issues. As with all personal injury cases, the injuries or other health issues must directly result from the defendant’s negligence.

Who is liable in a patient abandonment case?

The doctor, caregiver, relative, nurse, or other health professional who failed to provide the patient with duty of care is the usual liable party. However, there are times when the hospital, urgent care clinic, private practice, or other healthcare facility is liable for the patient’s injuries. For example, if a hospital continually does not have enough staff members present, they can be liable for any physical and psychological harm the patients experience. In such cases, the hospital or other entity is liable on the grounds of vicarious liability.

Common requested damages in patient abandonment cases include medical bills, lost wages from being unable to work, emotional distress, mental anguish, and pain and suffering. If the individual can no longer hold a job because of the physical harm patient abandonment caused them, they can claim disability and reduced earning capacity damages.

In some cases, patient abandonment causes the person’s death. This individual’s surviving family members can file a wrongful death suit and request damages such as funeral or memorial service costs, cremation or burial costs, loss of income, loss of life enjoyment, and loss of companionship.

Statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims in Washington State

To file a patient abandonment or other medical malpractice claim in Washington State, the patient must do so within three years of the incident. If the plaintiff discovers the health issue relating to patient abandonment at a later date, they have one year from the discovery to make a legal claim. Should the patient be under 18, the statute of limitations starts on the date when the parent or guardian learned of the abandonment or other medical malpractice.

If a legal claim is filed after the statute of limitations ends, the case is typically dismissed by the courts. However, there are instances when the court grants statute of limitation extensions. One example is if the plaintiff is severely disabled and cannot file the claim in a timely manner because they do not understand the nature of their injuries. An extension would be granted in this case. Other reasons for extensions include if the healthcare provider knowingly concealed evidence about the medical malpractice claim or committed fraud. In such cases, the state of Washington issues eight-year extensions.

If you or a loved one was the victim of patient abandonment, filing a legal claim is your next step. It is generally best to consult a legal professional before filing, as your lawyer will ensure you have a viable case and make certain all documents are filed correctly and on time.

To move forward with your patient abandonment claim, contact the office of Telaré Law. We operate offices in Kennewick and Richland, WA, and provide representation for a wide variety of personal injury claims, including medical malpractice. Call our office today to schedule a consultation with an experienced attorney or fill out our contact form.