Preventing Danger to Vulnerable Patients
Above all, when you are a patient, your healthcare provider must keep you safe. When you or your family member stays in a hospital, assisted living facility, nursing home, memory loss clinic, or rehabilitation facility, you expect protection.
In fact, in many cases, you entered the facility in the first place because you were too weak to keep yourself safe. Perhaps you were suffering psychologically – you were a child or wife escaping an abusive family member, or a patient struggling with addiction, or it’s you parent suffering from a mental illness, dementia or a head trauma. Or perhaps your mental state was healthy but you were physically incapacitated due to old age, illness, or injury.
Unfortunately, sexual predators lurk in places dedicated to healing precisely because those places often contain the weakest, most vulnerable targets. The owners and operators of these facilities must be held accountable when they fail to keep their patients safe.
Preying on the Weak
Sexual predators tend to sniff out easy opportunities, seeking out victims who are children, those who are incapacitated or confused, or those committed for mental health treatment. They predict those people may be less likely than their healthy counterparts to protest, fight back, remember, report, or prosecute. Many victims of sexual assaults in hospitals or rehabilitation facilities, for example, do not even remember or learn of the assault until much later, because of their impaired mental state at the time of the attack. Patients can be sexually assaulted by hospital or assisted living staff, outside vendors, other patients, and even visitors.
And some violations of women’s bodies aren’t thought of by the medical profession as “sexual assault.” According to a 2018 Forbes Magazine article, at teaching hospitals, a startling number of medical students and interns, for the so-called purpose of “practice,” often perform invasive pelvic examinations with gloved fingers on anesthetized women – without their consent.
The practice of performing pelvic exams on unconscious patients without consent is not illegal in North Carolina; in fact, it is illegal in only four states.
If you are undergoing surgery, talk to your doctor has a practice of allowing medical students to perform pelvic exams on sedated patients. If you are staying in a health facility and fall victim to sexual abuse, the facility probably violated both medical ethics and the law by failing to protect you from being assaulted. You may have legal remedies to receive compensation from both your assailant and the facility.
Negligent Hiring or Supervision
Employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees at work, so the hospital can be sued if the assailant was a member of its staff. One common cause of action against employers is negligent hiring or negligent supervision. To establish liability, there must be evidence that the employee posed a risk to patients and the medical facility knew, or should reasonably have known, that risk. Examples of such evidence might be:
- Earlier patient complaints filed against the employee
- Internal grievances from co-workers against the employee
- A prior conviction on the employee’s record
In North Carolina, employers may be held accountable if an employee who was negligently hired or supervised ends up harming someone. Hospitals must exercise care when hiring staff, particularly since hospital staff members may be working with vulnerable individuals such as those with dementia or other mental illness, or patients under sedation or anesthesia.
The elements of a negligent hiring claim include:
- The hospital had a duty to monitor the employees it hires
- It knew or should have known that the employee posed a safety risk to others, including patients, visitors, and other employees
- The hospital breached its duty
- That breach of duty caused you to suffer harm
Failure to Monitor Dangerous Patients
In some treatment facilities such as psychiatric hospitals, some patients can present a danger to other patients. A facility or can be held responsible for a patient’s sexual assault if it knew or should have known of a possibly dangerous situation. For example, when one patient sexually assaults another patient, the hospital may be responsible if it should have known the predator patient was dangerous but failed to monitor or guard that patient, or because it failed to properly monitor rooms. Because many sexual assaults are perpetrated by predators with a history of violence or mental illness, mental health facilities especially must be diligent in protecting patients by properly supervising and controlling aggressive patients.
Negligent Security Practices
Patients who are victims of sexual assault may also seek compensation from the hospital or facility if its security policies or practices contributed to the sexual assault. Based on North Carolina premises liability law, the owner or operator of the establishment must provide invited guests a safe environment or warn of risks. If a hospital has poor security policies, badly lit areas, nonfunctioning surveillance cameras, or business practices including allowing violations of patient monitoring and security protocol, the facility itself could be found liable for damages arising from that negligence.
Accountability: Contact a North Carolina Sexual Abuse Attorney
Sexual assault causes more than bodily injury; it can cause life-altering emotional and psychological harm. Victims of assault are three times more likely to experience severe depression and can resort to alcohol and/or drugs to cope. Sometimes, the only way to hold a hospital accountable for its actions is through a civil lawsuit. A 2016 report entitled When a Physician Commits Sexual Assault the Nation “Looks the Other Way” revealed that out of more 2,400 U.S. physicians who were sanctioned for sexually assaulting patients, more than half were allowed to retain their medical licenses.
When North Carolina hospitals do not protect the patients in their care and those patients are sexually assaulted, the facility is at fault. Depending on the circumstances, the victims may recover compensation for negligent hiring or failing to take reasonable steps in response to danger.
At Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC, a skilled and compassionate team of sexual abuse lawyers will help you hold your assailant and the hospital that protects them accountable for their actions. Attorney Leto Copeley is a member of the National Crime Victim Bar Association and fights for the firm’s clients with a tenacity that reflects her commitment to justice. To schedule a consultation, contact Copeley Johnson & Groninger PLLC or call 919-646-4220.