Are doctors liable for the actions of a covering physician?

May 1, 2011

A patient brings a negligence cause of action against both her dermatologist and the covering physician. The basis of her case against Dr. Eye, her own personal dermatologist, is that he was in a "joint-venture" with the covering dermatologist. Is Dr. Eye, the operating dermatologist, liable?

Key Points

Dr. Eye is a well-known dermatologist with a large medical and cosmetic practice. Two years ago, he performed a large excision of the lower eyelid on one of his patients.

Dr. Eye's excision went smoothly and lasted less than 30 minutes. The patient left the office without any difficulty at 11 a.m. At 4 p.m., Dr. Eye's staff called his patient to check on her postoperative course. She reported some ecchymoses, but otherwise she had no difficulties. At 6 p.m., Dr. Eye, leaving for a week's vacation, signed out to a covering dermatologist in a neighboring town.

The covering physician discussed the situation with the patient and reassured her that such findings were not unusual. He suggested she try to go to sleep and call the office in the morning.

The next morning, the patient awakened to find she had no vision in her eye. She immediately went to her ophthalmologist's office. He noted that she had evidence of a retrobulbar hemorrhage. Although he immediately performed surgery to correct the problem, the blindness was permanent. Had the covering dermatologist referred her to an ophthalmologist the night before (who then could have done surgery immediately), the blindness would have been prevented.

The patient brings a negligence cause of action against both her dermatologist and the covering physician. The basis of her case against Dr. Eye, her own personal dermatologist, is that he was in a "joint-venture" with the covering dermatologist. After all, they cover each other's practices all the time. It should be noted that there are no payments made for the cross-coverage, and the two practices share neither staff nor facilities.

Is Dr. Eye, the operating dermatologist, liable?