CAN A HOSPITAL BE SUED FOR IMPLANTING OR SELLING A DEFECTIVE MEDICAL DEVICE?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Hufft v. Horowitz, 4 Cal. App. 4th 8 (1992).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a hospital be sued for implanting or selling a defective medical device?
In most settings, any individual that manufactures, distributes, or sells a defective product can be held liable for injuries arising from that defect. Id. at 13. This means that the manufacturer, distributor, whole seller, and retail seller can all be sued, even if the defect was “created” by only the manufacturer. Id. This case asked if a hospital can be held liable for selling a medical implant that is defectively designed. Id. at 12. After carefully considering the question, the court found that a hospital cannot be considered a “seller” of such a product, and thus, cannot be liable for injuries arising from a properly implanted but defectively designed device. Id. at 19-20.
Plaintiff was undergoing a procedure to have medical implant surgically placed. Id. at 11. The hospital provided the implant and charged Plaintiff for the device as part of the overall medical bill. Id. After the procedure, Plaintiff began experiencing adverse effects from the implanted device. Id. This ultimately caused Plaintiff to undergo three additional surgeries, the last of which completely removed the device and replaced it with another type of implant. Id. Plaintiff filed suit against Defendants: the doctor and the hospital. Id. Plaintiff’s sole theory for recovery against the hospital was that the hospital was a seller of a defective product. Id.
The court began by acknowledging that most sellers of defectively designed products are held liable for injuries arising from the defects. Id. at 13. This is simply part of the strict liability imposed for defective products; a seller can “chase” liability back to the manufacturer if it wishes, but because it can be difficult for a purchaser to know who manufactured the specific product, liability also attaches the seller—a party the purchase will know. Id. Though this is the general rule, there are exceptions. Id. One of these exceptions is for prescription drugs, where the doctor/seller is exempt from liability. Id. at 16.
The court, thus, did not feel bound to apply the general rule without considering its implications. Id. at 17. First, attaching liability to hospitals for medical implants and devices sold could cause hospitals to stop selling such products directly. Id. at 18. This would result in patients attempting to purchase very precise medical devices themselves—something that is best left to those with precise medical knowledge. Id. Additionally, such devices are not selected on a brand-name basis as other products are. Id. Instead, there may be only a few manufacturers of the precise type of implant needed by a particular patient. Id. Thus, discouraging patients from purchasing such products isn’t a factor here—the patient may well have to have the device to survive, so selective purchasing isn’t much of a concern. Id. at 19-20.
Weighing all the factors, the court held that a hospital and doctor cannot be held strictly liable for the sale of a defectively designed product. Id. at 24. This decision does not mean that a doctor cannot be held liable for failing to find a manufacturing defect before implanting a medical device, if that defective could have been discovered through a reasonable inspect. Id. However, this case fell into the first category, meaning that Plaintiff could not recovery from Defendants, but instead must sue the manufacturer of the product. Id.