Appeals court reverses IU Health win in suit over near-fatal spine surgery

Angie Stewart -   Print  |

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a judgment that would have allowed IU Health to dodge "vicarious liability" for an independent anesthesiologist's work in a near-fatal spine surgery, according to court documents filed Sept. 28.

Six things to know about the case:

1. Richard Jernagan, a patient who had been identified as high-risk, went into cardiac arrest during a scheduled spine surgery at IU Health in 2011. Mr. Jernagan's anesthesia services were provided by an independent contractor whose business card had been handed to him upon check-in, with no further clarification of his relationship to the health system.

2. In 2013, Mr. Jernagan sued both IU Health and the surgeon who performed his surgery for medical malpractice. His complaint incorrectly identified the anesthesiologist involved in his procedure. In April 2015, a medical review panel issued an opinion favoring IU Health and its employed surgeon, without addressing the conduct of any anesthesiologist.

3. Mr. Jernagan then filed a separate complaint naming IU Health and the surgeon, who was later dismissed from the complaint by the trial court. This particular complaint accused nurses of failing to properly monitor and document intraoperative blood loss, and of failing to notify the surgeon about it.

4. On Sept. 30, 2015, IU Health filed a motion for summary judgment, meaning a decision would be made without a full trial. During a January 2016 hearing on the motion for summary judgment, Mr. Jernagan alleged IU Health was "vicariously liable" for the acts of the independent contractor who provided his anesthesia services.

5. In September 2019, the trial court granted IU Health's motion for summary judgment, concluding that by giving Mr. Jernagan the anesthesiologist's business card and having him sign a consent form, IU Health provided sufficient notification that an independent contractor would provide his anesthesia care.

6. Mr. Jernagan appealed, and the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment. It ruled the patient consent form didn't characterize the anesthesiologist as an independent contractor, and that the anesthesiologist refers to himself as a practice partner rather than an "employee" of Anesthesia Consultants of Indianapolis.

"We conclude that a genuine issue of material fact exists whether the delivery of a business card during the surgical registration procedure is sufficient to satisfy the meaningful notice requirement informing the patient that the doctor performing the medical procedure is an independent contractor," the court said.

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