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Vicarious Liability Not Available in Medical Malpractice Claim by NY Prisoner

Last year, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division held the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) could not be found vicariously liable for the actions of contract physicians.

Steven Garofolo filed a medical malpractice claim in the Court of Claims against DOCCS alleging that while incarcerated at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, he sustained injuries as a result of treatment and operations performed by Drs. Stephen Schwartz and Jonathan Holder, who provided care pursuant to contracts with DOCCS.

The suit argued DOCCS was liable under negligence and vicarious liability theories. After the Appellate Division’s reversal of DOCCS’ motion to dismiss, the state moved for partial summary judgment on the medical malpractice claims based on vicarious liability. The Court of Claims denied the motion and ordered a trial, finding that Garofolo “reasonably believed that Schwartz and Holder were acting as ostensible agents of defendant, thereby potentially rendering defendant vicariously liable for any acts of malpractice by the doctors.”

The Appellate Division disagreed, holding the Court of Claims should have granted the state’s motion. The appellate court noted that according to precedent, “a hospital or an entity, such as DOCCS, may be vicariously liable for the medical malpractice of independent contractors in certain circumstances based on a theory of ‘agency or control in fact, or apparent or ostensible agency.’” Additionally, “As relevant here, ostensible agency imposes vicarious liability ... for the alleged malpractice of an independently contracted doctor when an inmate has reasonably relied upon the appearance of the doctor’s authority created by the words or conduct of DOCCS.”

However, the Appellate Division found the multiple consent forms that Garofolo had signed were on hospital letterhead and referenced the hospital and doctors without any mention of DOCCS. Thus, he failed to show facts to establish apparent agency. The Court of Claims’ order was reversed and the state’s motion for partial summary judgment granted. See: Garofolo v. State of New York, 23 N.Y.S.3d 667, 135 A.D.3d 1108 (N.Y. App. Div. 3d Dep’t 2016). 

Related legal case

Garofolo v. State of New York