Liability Of Hospitals Under The Doctrine of Apparent Authority and Doctrine of Corporate Negligence

The case of Professional Services, Inc. v. Agana, G.R. No. 126297; Agana, et al. v. Fuentes, G.R. No. 126467; Ampil v. Agana, et al., G.R. No. 127590, January 31, 2007 set the precedent for the liability of hospitals for the negligence of doctors employed by it, or even consultants. The SC said that courts in holding a hospital liable for damages, having undertaken one of mankind’s most important and delicate endeavors, must assume the grave responsibility of pursuing it with appropriate care. The care and service dispensed through this high trust, however technical, complex and esoteric its character may be, must meet standards of responsibility commensurate with the undertaking to preserve and protect the health, and indeed, the very lives of those placed in the hospital’s keeping. (Beeck v. Tuzon General Hospital, 500 P. 2d 1153 (1972), citing Darling v. Charleston Community Memorial Hospital, 33 Ill. 2d 326, 211 N.E. 2d 253).

Dr. Ampil, assisted by the medical staff of the Medical City Hospital, performed an anterior resection surgery on Natividad. He found that the malignancy in her sigmoid area had spread on her left ovary, necessitating the removal of certain portions of it. Thus, Dr. Ampil obtained the consent of Natividad’s husband, Enrique Agana, to permit Dr. Juan Fuentes, to perform hysterectomy on her.

After Dr. Fuentes had completed the hysterectomy, Dr. Ampil took over, completed the operation and closed the incision.

The operation appeared to be flawed, because the attending nurse entered these remarks:

“sponge count lacking 2

“announced to surgeon searched (sic) done but to no avail continue for closure.”

Natividad was released from the hospital, but later on complained of excruciating pain in her anal region. She consulted both doctors about it. They told her that the pain is the natural consequence of the surgery. Dr. Ampil then recommended that she consult an oncologist to examine the cancerous nodes which were not removed during the operation.

Accompanied by her husband she went to the United States to seek further treatment. After four months of consultations and laboratory examinations, she was told she was free of cancer. Hence, she was advised to return to the Philippines.

After her return to the Philippines, her daughter found a piece of gauze protruding from her vagina. Upon being informed about it, Dr. Ampil proceeded to her house where he managed to extract by hand a piece of gauze measuring 1.5 inches in width. He then assured her that the pains would soon vanish.

Dr. Ampil’s assurance did not come true. Instead, the pains intensified, prompting Natividad to seek treatment at the Polymedic General Hospital. While confined there, Dr. Ramon Gutierrez detected the presence of another foreign object in her vagina – a foul-smelling gauze measuring 1.5 inches in width badly infected her vaginal vault. A recto-vaginal fistula had formed in her reproductive organs which forced stool to excrete through the vagina. Another surgical operation was needed to remedy the damage. Thus, in October 1984, she underwent another surgery.

The spouses filed a complaint for damages alleging that the doctors are liable for negligence for leaving two pieces of gauze inside Natividad’s body and malpractice for concealing their acts of negligence.

On February 16, 1986, pending the outcome of the above case, she died and was duly substituted by her children.

The trial court rendered a judgment holding the doctors liable for negligence and malpractice.

On appeal, the CA dismissed the case against Dr. Fuentes but affirmed the judgment against Dr. Ampil and the hospital.

On September 6, 1996, the Court of Appeals rendered its Decision jointly disposing of CA-GR CV No. 42062 and CA-GR SP No. 32198, dismissing the case against Dr. Fuentes and holding PSI and Dr. Ampil solidarily liable.

Only Dr. Ampil filed a motion for reconsideration, but was denied.

PSI alleged in its petition that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that: (1) it is estopped from raising the defense that Dr. Ampil is not its employee; (2) it is solidarily liable with Dr. Ampil; and (3) it is not entitled to its counterclaim against the Aganas. PSI contended that Dr. Ampil is not its employee, but a mere consultant or independent contractor. As such, he alone should answer for his negligence.

The Aganas maintained that the Court of Appeals erred in finding that Dr. Fuentes is not guilty of negligence or medical malpractice, invoking the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. They contended that the pieces of gauze are prima facie proofs that the operating surgeons have been negligent.

Dr. Ampil asserted that the Court of Appeals erred in finding him liable for negligence and malpractice sans evidence that he left the two pieces of gauze in Natividad’s vagina. He pointed to other probable cause, such as: (1) it was Dr. Fuentes who used gauzes in performing the hysterectomy; (2) the attending nurses’ failure to properly count the gauzes used during surgery; and (3) the medical intervention of the American doctors who examined Natividad in the United States of America.

The issues submitted to the court were: first, whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding Dr. Ampil liable for negligence and malpractice; second, whether the Court of Appeals erred in absolving Dr. Fuentes of any liability; and third, whether PSI may be held solidarily liable for the negligence of Dr. Ampil.

Held: (1) Whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding Dr. Ampil liable for negligence and malpractice.

Dr. Ampil argued that the Court should not discount either of the following possibilities: first, Dr. Fuentes left the gauzes in Natividad’s body after performing hysterectomy; second, the attending nurses erred in counting the gauzes; and third, the American doctors were the ones who placed the gauzes in Natividad’s body.

The arguments are purely conjectural and without basis. Records show that he did not present any evidence to prove that the American doctors were the ones who put or left the gauzes in Natividad’s body. Neither did he submit evidence to rebut the correctness of the record of operation, particularly the number of gauzes used. As to the alleged negligence of Dr. Fuentes, Dr. Ampil examined his work and found it in order.

The glaring truth is that all the major circumstances, taken together, as specified by the Court of Appeals, directly point to Dr. Ampil as the negligent party, thus:

First, it is not disputed that the surgeons used gauzes as sponges to control the bleeding of the patient during the surgical operation.

Second, immediately after the operation, the nurses who assisted in the surgery noted in their support that the ‘sponge count (was) lacking 2’; that such anomaly was ‘announced to surgeon’ and that a ‘search was done but to no avail’ prompting Dr. Ampil to ‘continue for closure’ x x x.

Third, after the operation, two (2) gauzes were extracted from the same spot of the body of Mrs. Agana where the surgery was performed.

An operation requiring the placing of sponges in the incision is not complete until the sponges are properly removed, and it is settled that the leaving of sponges or other foreign substances in the wound after the incision has been closed is at least prima facie negligence by the operating surgeon. (Rule v. Cheeseman, 317 P. 2d 472 (1957), citing Russel v. Newman, 116 Kan. 268 P. 752; Bernsden v. Johnson, 174 Kan. 230, 255 P. 2d 1033). To put simply, such act is considered so inconsistent with due care as to raise an inference of negligence. There are even legions of authorities to the effect that such act is negligence per se.

The SC further ruled that it is not blind to the reality that there are times when danger to a patient’s life precludes a surgeon from further searching missing sponges or foreign objects left in the body. But this does not leave him free from any obligation. Even if it has been shown that a surgeon was required by the urgent necessities of the case to leave a sponge in his patient’s abdomen, because of the dangers attendant upon delay, still, it is his legal duty to so inform his patient within a reasonable time thereafter by advising her of what he had been compelled to do. This is in order that she might seek relief from the effects of the foreign object left in her body as her condition might permit. In Smith v. Zeagler, it was ruled, thus:

“The removal of all sponges used is part of a surgical operation, and when a physician or surgeon fails to remove a sponge he has placed in his patient’s body that should be removed as part of the operation, he thereby leaves his operation uncompleted and creates a new condition which imposes upon him the legal duty of calling the new condition to his patient’s attention, and endeavoring with the means he has at hand to minimize and avoid untoward results likely to ensue therefrom. (157 So. 328 Pla. (1934)).

Dr. Ampil did not inform Natividad about the missing two pieces of gauze. Worse, he even misled her that the pain she was experiencing was the ordinary consequence of her operation. Had he been more candid, Natividad could have taken the immediate and appropriate medical remedy to remove the gauzes from her body. What was initially an act of negligence by Dr. Ampil has ripened into a deliberate wrongful act of deceiving his patient.

To successfully pursue this kind of case, a patient must only prove that a health care provider either failed to do something which a reasonably prudent health care provider would have done, or that he did something that a reasonably prudent provider would not have done; and that failure or action caused injury to the patient. (Garcia-Rueda v. Pascasio, G.R. No. 118141, September 5, 1997, 278 SCRA 769). Simply put, the elements are duty, breach, injury and proximate causation. Dr. Ampil, as the lead surgeon, had the duty to remove all foreign objects, such as gauzes, from Natividad’s body before closure of the incision. When he failed to do so, it was his duty to inform Natividad about it. Dr. Ampil breached both duties. Such breach caused injury to Natividad, necessitating her further examination by American doctors and another surgery. That Dr. Ampil’s negligence is the proximate cause of Natividad’s injury could be traced from his act of closing the incision despite the information given by the attending nurses that two pieces of gauze were still missing. That they were later on extracted from Natividad’s vagina established the causal link between Dr. Ampil’s negligence and the injury. And what further aggravated such injury was his deliberate concealment of the missing gauzes from the knowledge of Natividad and her family.

(2) Whether the Court of Appeals erred in absolving Dr. Fuentes of any liability.

The Aganas assailed the dismissal by the trial court of the case against Dr. Fuentes on the ground that it is contrary to the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. According to them, the fact that the two pieces of gauze were left inside Natividad’s body is a prima facie evidence of Dr. Fuentes’ negligence.

Held: The SC ruled otherwise.

Literally, res ipsa loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself”. It is the rule that the fact of the occurrence of an injury, taken with the surrounding circumstances, may permit an inference or raise a presumption of negligence, or make out a plaintiff’s prima facie case, and present a question of fact for defendant to meet with an explanation. (Ramos v. CA, G.R. No. 124354, December 29, 1999, 321 SCRA 584). Stated differently, where the thing which caused the injury, without the fault of the injured, is under the exclusive control of the defendant and the injury is such that it should not have occurred if he, having such control used proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation that the injury arose from the defendant’s want of care, and the burden of proof is shifted to him to establish that he has observed due care and diligence. (Africa v. Caltex (Phils.) Inc., 123 Phil. 280).

From the foregoing statements of the rule, the requisites for the applicability of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur are: (1) the occurrence of an injury; (2) the thing which caused the injury was under the control and management of the defendant; (3) the occurrence was such that in the ordinary course of things, would not have happened if those who had control or management used proper care; and (4) the absence of explanation by the defendant. Of the foregoing requisites, the most instrumental is the “control and management of the thing which cause the injury”.

The element of “control and management of the thing which caused the injury” are wanting in the case. Hence, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur will not lie.