Suits against labs sound in ordinary negligence rather than medical malpractice

By Alex Stein

Last week, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island decided that suit against a lab for failure to identify illness or genetic disorder sounds in ordinary negligence and not in medical malpractice.  Ho–Rath v. Rhode Island Hospital, — A.3d —-, 2014 WL 1765421 (R.I. 2014). The “ordinary negligence” sound is music to the plaintiffs’ ears: it exempts them from statutory caps on damages, from the restrictive limitations and repose provisions, from demanding requirements for expert testimony, and from other procedural burdens. See here.

This ruling was based on Rhode Island’s statutory definition of healthcare provider. The Court held that this definition excludes labs because they do not treat patients and have a separate licensing system. In the case at hand, the Court’s ruling enabled the plaintiffs to toll the statute of limitations by invoking the broad undiscoverability exception not available in suits for medical malpractice.

Doctrinally, this precedent exposes labs to an increased prospect of tort liability, but I doubt that it will affect lab prices. The lab industry follows established protocols that minimize errors. Compliance with those protocols indicates adequate care that virtually guarantees the lab an immunity against suit. Also: the vast majority of lab errors result from mistakes made by clinicians and hospital administration. See here.

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