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Roberts v. Galen of Virginia: Medical Malpractice

In the middle of 1992, Wanda Johnson was hit by a truck and taken via ambulance to the nearest hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. She suffered extensive and serious injuries all over her body include her brain, pelvis, and spine. After recovering at that location for over a month, she was transferred to another hospital for further treatment and screening. However, her condition did not get better and, in fact, it got worse. Eventually, she sued the original hospital for damages pursuant to section 1395dd(b) of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). This section provides in relevant part that hospitals must use appropriate medical screening procedures before transferring patients to other medical facilities. After losing on summary judgment, the plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals but that Court found that since the plaintiff did not illustrate any improper motive she could not recover under section 1395dd(b) of EMTALA. Seeking a reversal of this decision, she appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

ISSUE

Must a plaintiff show that a hospital acted with improper motives if it does not stabilize the plaintiff sufficiently in order to recuperate compensation under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA).

ANALYSIS

Both the petitioner and the respondent started their analysis of this issue by looking at the relevant language of the statute (EMTALA). Here is the pertinent part:

“[I]f any individual … comes to the emergency department and a request is made on the individual’s behalf for examination or treatment for a medical condition, the hospital must provide for an appropriate medical screening examination within the capability of the hospital’s emergency department… In general if any individual (whether or not eligible for benefits under this subchapter) comes to a hospital and the hospital determines that the individual has an emergency medical condition, the hospital must provide either—(A) within the staff and facilities available at the hospital, for such further medical examination and such treatment as may be required to stabilize the medical condition, or (B) for transfer of the individual to another medical facility in accordance with subsection… “

The hospital respondent interpreted this law to mean that plaintiffs must show that the hospital acted with improper motives (such as one involving, gender, alienage, race, or indigence) before recovering under this law. The petitioner argued that the plain text of the statute opposed the respondent’s claims and that neither an implicit or explicit reading could suggest motives mattered with respect to an EMTALA action.

HOLDING

The Supreme Court refuted any idea that section 1395dd(b) of EMTALA mandates a showing of improper motive prior to succeeding on an action for damages. It stated that this could not be found implicitly or explicitly within the text. Furthermore, it ruled that the law did not demand an “appropriate stabilization, nor can it reasonably be read to require an improper motive.” Therefore, the court found for the petitioner and held that she could bring an action against the original hospital for the manner in which she was transferred out of its care.

RULE

Plaintiffs need not show that hospitals acted with improper motives when pursuing claims under the EMTALA.

BREAKDOWN

The decision in this case was per curiam with all members of the Court siding with the majority (Rhenquist, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer).

CONSEQUENCES

This case lowers the bar that plaintiffs must clear when suing hospitals for the way in which they are transferred between facilities. Going forward, they need not show that the hospital acted with improper motives and only need demonstrate that there was no “appropriate medical screening.”

Copyright © 2022, Rosenfeld Injury LawyersNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 284
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About this Author

Jonathan Rosenfeld, Personal Injury Lawyer, Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers
Attorney

I’m an Illinois lawyer with a nationwide practice who represents members of our society who have been seriously injured or killed due to the irresponsible acts of an individual or company. The injured have the same rights as everyone else — to be treated with compassion and respect— but their vulnerability means they need special protection and representation against those who injure, neglect or abuse them. This is my life’s work.

I recognize that an injured person has one opportunity to get the compensation that the law allows. I am fully dedicated and mindful of this...

847-835-8895
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