Does Massachusetts' "Charitable Immunity" Law Affect Patient Safety?

Everyone agrees that well-trained, devoted nurses are a crucial component of quality health care. Not everyone agrees on what nurse staffing levels are needed to maintain high-quality care or on how to create and sustain a sizable pool of good nurses. Some Massachusetts health care advocates are now focusing on the state's "charitable immunity" law as an overlooked contributing factor to substandard care.

What is the "Charitable Immunity Law"?

Massachusetts is one of the few remaining states to recognize the doctrine of "charitable immunity." In short, this legal concept is designed to protect charitable and nonprofit hospitals in cases of medical malpractice. It is based on the idea that it's bad public policy to require those hospitals to pay medical malpractice judgments because it reduces the hospital's ability to effectively treat patients.

The cap means that even if a nonprofit's hospital's negligence causes death or serious, lifelong injury to a patient, the most the hospital will pay (so long as the facility was acting in the pursuit of the organization's charitable purpose at the time) to survivors or the victim is $100,000. For a nonprofit or charitable hospital, providing medical care is considered a vital part of their reason for being.

Arguments Against "Charitable Immunity"

Perhaps the most compelling argument against the "charitable immunity" doctrine is that it enables hospitals to understaff nurses and doctors.

Hospital administrators understand the research showing that fatigued doctors and nurses commit more errors than rested ones, but their bottom lines are enhanced if they can keep staffing to a minimum, forcing the nurses and physicians they do have to work longer hours.

Naturally, these medical errors and cases of medical malpractice affect patients and their families. Even after the damage has been inflicted, the "charitable immunity" cap prevents those victims and families from receiving compensation to pay for surgeries and physical rehabilitation or therapy that can sometimes restore, repair and heal the injuries.

It's common practice in hospitals to have nurses work successive 12-hour shifts. Nurses often work several 12-hour-shift days in a row in order to get several days in a row off. The problem with the shifts is that they make sleep-deprived nurses more likely to not only make mistakes that can seriously injure patients, but they are themselves exposed to a higher risk of health problems.

A recent University of Maryland study focused on a group of 80 nurses working three successive 12-hour shifts. More than half of the shifts were longer than 12.5 hours, and when combined with time spent commuting and on family responsibilities, nurses were left with little time for quality rest: they average only 5.5 hours of sleep between shifts.

The effect on patients was enormous: nurses in the study were more than three times likely to commit errors than nurses working standard shifts of 8.5 hours.

No Incentives to Address Problems

Nonprofit and charitable hospitals have little financial incentive to fix the problems associated with understaffed facilities, including fatigued, error-prone nurses.

Everyone familiar with skyrocketing medical costs knows that $100,000 isn't even likely to pay for surgeries necessary to repair the damages or cover the costs of long-term nursing care, not to mention lost wages, and pain and suffering often associated with medical malpractice.

Learn More About Your Rights and Options

If you have been a victim of medical malpractice at a nonprofit or charitable hospital, you might have recourse against individual employees of the hospital, in addition to seeking the capped judgment against the hospital itself. To find out about your legal options, contact a Massachusetts medical malpractice attorney who can evaluate your case and discuss with you the best course for you to take.