When patients entrust medical professionals, facilities, and hospitals with their healthcare, an expectation of competent diagnosis and treatment consistent with the established standard of care in the community constitutes a reasonable expectation. Many people are overwhelmed by the massive stack of intake paperwork they face as new patients. Frequently, a waiver or release of liability often will purport to limit the legal rights and remedies of patients to seek financial compensation for injuries or other harm caused by the negligence of a health care provider. Although many patients assume they cannot pursue a medical malpractice claim because their health care provider had them execute a document limiting the liability of the provider or facility, courts do not always enforce these types of provisions. In this blog, our Miami medical malpractice lawyers review a court case decided a few weeks ago that allowed a plaintiff to pursue a medical malpractice claim despite signing a release of liability.
In Brooks v. Paul, the plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged that her physician and other defendants negligently cut her ureter during spinal fusion surgery. The plaintiff filed a medical malpractice lawsuit, but the defendants sought summary judgment by claiming that the release signed by the plaintiff shielded the medical providers from liability. The language of the release provided in pertinent part that the medical providers “will not carry any medical malpractice insurance. Being of sound mind and sound body, I hereby acknowledge this fact and agree not to sue [the medical providers] for any reason. My reason for doing this is that I realize that [the medical providers] will do the very best to take care of me according to community medical standards.”
While the trial judge granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment finding that the release executed by the plaintiff in favor of the defendants was “clear and unambiguous,” the appellate court disagreed. The trial judge characterized the language of the release as “completely unambiguous.” However, the appellate court emphasized that provisions that deny a party the right to seek damages for injuries caused by the negligence of another as being viewed with disfavor under the law. The court emphasized that public policy supports this position because this type of clause excuses a person’s obligation of due care toward others and shifts the financial risk of injury to the party who is less equipped to prevent injury or bear the risk of loss. Because of these policy considerations, this type of clause is narrowly construed against the party seeking to avoid liability. The appellate court reasoned that the impact of the language must be so clear and understandable that an ordinary person knows what they are contracting away.
In assessing whether this standard had been met, the court examined prior decisions that turned on the language of the release of liability. The court acknowledged that the release did not need to expressly use the term “negligence” to waive claims based on the lack of ordinary care. The release was comparable to others that were determined by courts to be ambiguous because they included conflicting language with one clause seeming to disclaim exposure to negligence liability with another provision authorizing negligence lawsuits. The court noted that the first two sentences of this release simply informed patients that the medical providers did not have malpractice insurance and affirmed that patients “agree not sue for any reason.” However, the last sentence indicated the reason for this agreement was that the health care professionals would “do the very best to take care of me according to community medical standards.” This last sentence essentially represented that the doctors and medical facilities would exercise reasonable care based on acceptable medical standards. The conflict between the broad waiver of the right to sue and the representation that the defendants would “do the very best” according to established medical standards created ambiguity, so the appellate court refused to enforce the release of liability.
Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano: Seeking Maximum Recovery for Serious Injury and Wrongful Death Victims and Families
This decision serves as a reminder that patients injured by medical negligence should seek legal advice rather than assume they are barred from suing because they signed a release. Our lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance clients need to pursue the results they desire. For over 130 collective years, our firm has assisted accident victims in personal injury and wrongful death actions across South Florida. We seek to obtain compensation for your tangible and intangible damages, including medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. Our skill and dedication have earned us an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and recognition as one of South Florida’s top firms by the Miami Herald. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.