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July 20, 2011

Assessing Liability for Health Care Entities That Insufficiently Prepare for Catastrophic Emergencies

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University, Tempe.

JAMA. 2011;306(3):308-309. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.996

Lawsuits against hospitals and other health care entities alleging liability for patient harms are brought and settled routinely in the United States. However, the settlement by health care giant Tenet Healthcare, on the eve of trial on March 23, 2011, in Preston v Tenet Healthsystem Memorial Medical Center,1 falls outside the norm of routine entity liability cases. The class of plaintiffs in New Orleans alleged not just that Tenet's emergency responses at its Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina were insufficient but that Tenet's failure to prepare for a foreseeable emergency caused their harms. Avoiding the prospect of a negative judgment at trial, Tenet's settlement implicates the increasing potential for health care entities to incur liability for deficiencies in emergency preparedness. It may renew demands to immunize entities from liability in future emergencies and requires a reassessment of the legal standard by which hospitals and other health care entities may be judged.