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U.S. Court In Texas Holds United States Could Not Be Held Vicariously Liable For Medical Residents� Alleged Negligence


HLD, v. 33, n. 4 (April 2005)

U.S. Court In Texas Holds United States Could Not Be Held Vicariously Liable For Medical Residents' Alleged Negligence

Roland Aylesworth had gastric by-pass surgery at the South Texas Veteran's Health Care System, Audie Murphy Division (Veteran's Hospital). Surgical residents being trained in general surgery through the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) participated in the surgery and in Aylesworth's post-operative care. These surgical residents had been assigned to the Veteran's Hospital as part of their residency program. Aylesworth suffered various complications from the surgery and eventually died. Helen Aylesworth and the estate (plaintiffs) brought an action against the United States, the treating medical providers, and the surgical residents in federal district court pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Plaintiffs argued that the United States was vicariously liable for the residents' allegedly negligent actions. The United States moved for partial summary judgment as to the negligence claims against the resident doctors. A magistrate judge recommended that partial summary judgment be granted to the United States on the ground that the military resident physicians were employees of UTHSC and not under the control and authority of the United States.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation. The court found that the magistrate judge had properly applied Texas Supreme Court precedent in determining that the residents were not "borrowed servants" and therefore the United States could not be held vicariously liable for their actions. Specifically, the court found that UTHSC retained the right to direct and control the residents' treatment of patients. UTHSC's contract with the Veteran's Hospital placed responsibility on UTHSC for resident training and supervision, as did other documentation exchanged between the parties, said the court. "The contractual relationship between the parties clearly establishes that UTHSC maintained the right to direct and control the details of the resident's treatment of patients," the court said.

The court also held that the physicians' status as military residents did not make the United States vicariously liable for their alleged negligent acts. "[T]he ability of the United States military to call resident doctors into active military service or to reassign them does not grant the U.S. the right of control over the residents' actions and work details that they perform while in the UTHSC residency program." Moreover, the court said, the contractual right of control and vicarious liability did not shift to the United States merely because the residents exercised independent judgment in treating a patient. Accordingly, the court granted the United States' motion for partial summary judgment

Aylesworth v. United States, No. SA-03-CA-0724-RF (W.D. Tex. Feb. 28, 2005).

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