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Florida Supreme Court Agrees To Take Hospital ER Liability Case

Emergency responders providing care to a patient in the back of an ambulance.
Peter Haden/WLRN
The Florida Channel
Emergency responders providing care to a patient in the back of an ambulance.

In a case stemming from the death of a woman after a botched cosmetic procedure, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide whether a hospital can be liable for treatment provided by emergency-room doctors who are independent contractors. 

Justices said they will take up an appeal in a Miami-Dade County case involving the 2013 death of Suyima Torres, who was taken by ambulance to Doctors Hospital after she became unconscious following a cosmetic procedure at a clinic. Torres, 28, was treated in the hospital’s emergency room and intensive-care unit but died several hours later.

Torres’ estate filed a lawsuit against the hospital and the emergency-room providers, who were independent contractors and not hospital employees. The 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled in March that the hospital could not be held liable for treatment provided by the contractors, prompting the estate to ask the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

The Supreme Court issued a brief order Wednesday accepting the case, though it did not immediately set a date for oral arguments.

Attorneys for the Torres estate argue that the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruling conflicts with earlier decisions from the neighboring 4th District Court of Appeal about whether hospitals can be held liable for the actions of independent contractors.

“The question presented is: When a patient presents to a hospital’s emergency department, may the hospital delegate its duty to provide emergency medical services to an independent contractor and absolve itself of any liability if those medical services are performed negligently by the contractor?” the estate’s attorneys wrote in a May brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the issue. “For Floridians living in Fort Lauderdale and other parts of the Fourth District, the answer is ‘no.’ For Floridians living in Miami and other parts of the Third District, the answer is ‘yes.’ For Floridians living in other parts of the state, the answer is uncertain. Given that thousands of Floridians enter emergency departments daily either for themselves or a loved one, this (Supreme) Court should accept jurisdiction, answer the question presented, and provide much needed clarity in Florida law.”

In its March ruling, however, the 3rd District Court of Appeal pointed to another hospital-related decision from the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which hears cases in the Tampa Bay region and Southwest Florida. The 3rd District judges upheld a circuit-court decision that dismissed the Torres estate’s claims against Doctors Hospital.

“We believe that expanding Florida hospital liability to include liability for those emergency room medical providers who are hired by hospitals as independent contractors is a public policy decision that is within the purview of Florida's legislative branch,” the 3rd District ruling said. “Or, to the extent the issue is one of common law, it calls for a Florida Supreme Court decision. We simply are averse to expanding, by judicial dictate, the liability of Florida hospitals, as the estate urges.”

Attorneys for Doctors Hospital made similar arguments last month in a brief filed in the Supreme Court, saying the 3rd District Court of Appeal “correctly rejected the petitioner’s request that the court act as the Legislature and expand hospital liability beyond the bounds of well-settled Florida law.”

The court documents do not provide details about Torres’ death. But numerous media reports said she died after receiving buttocks-enhancing injections at a Miami clinic.