The Impact of COVID-19 on Medical Malpractice Claims

            The coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching effects in various sectors of health law, including medical malpractice. Within the malpractice sector, there have been changes to how claims are litigated because ofemergency statutes changing liability, and there will likely be an increase in claims due to an increase in hospital-acquired infections. As a result, hospital systems are being forced to respond with higher-than-expected costs of litigating these malpractice claims and are passing on these cost issues to future patients through decreased available capital.

            The U.S. has mirrored an international model limiting liability in response to the pandemic. Italy, after seeing its first wave of COVID-19 cases, limited the legal responsibility of hospital professionals to gross negligence. An Italian study of medical malpractice in a COVID-19 setting identified two critical points that were subsequently addressed with U.S. liability statutes: the pandemic had a heavy burden on healthcare resources, and because of limited understanding, treatment and preventative measures were limited.

Statutes enacted during the pandemic limited the ability of some patients to seek out medical malpractice claims surrounding COVID-19 care and hospitalizations. The federal government responded with §3215 of The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which immunized volunteer healthcare workers from liability when providing COVID-19 services during the emergency response.

States also responded with liability limitations protecting healthcare workers which are now starting to see claims being brought. New York, for example, enacted the Emergency Disaster Treatment Protection Act (EDTPA) which immunized hospitals from liability for COVID-19 related services with the exceptions of “willful or intentional criminal misconduct, gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional infliction of harm.” The act has since been repealed, but it was enacted at the time of a patient’s 2020 death. In the subsequent lawsuit, the healthcare workers were found to not be liable since they were not grossly negligent. Similar cases are likely to follow, but the costs of litigating these claims will remain for both parties.

            Despite liability limits, malpractice claims may continue to rise in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. As hospitals faced workforce shortages and health worker burnout and trauma, many had to restructure their floors and create new COVID units with ever-limited staff. As a result, the number of hospital-associated infections (HAIs) understandably increased. During 2020 and 2021, following the initial start of the U.S. based pandemic response, central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs), catheter-associated urinary tract infections (CAUTIs), and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteremia all increased over 2019 data. From 2019 to the third quarter of 2021, ventilator-associated events increased by 60%. These numbers suggest even more claims will arise out of the pandemic as patients recover and seek out remedies for their unnecessarily long and traumatic hospital stays resulting from their HAIs.

            These changes are resulting in higher than anticipated litigation costs to hospitals. This is impacting their ability to budget on top of a decrease in operating margins from the pandemic. Together, these limits on projected income and increased output for litigation costs are negatively impacting patients further; break-even margins force hospitals to restrict spending and limit investments in patient futures. As the number of HAIs has increased, so have claims, and therefore the cost of litigating has increased. This cost is being passed off to patients in the form of decreased future health expenditures and may create even more malpractice claims in the future as hospitals struggle to keep up.

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