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Ophthalmologists’ Liability for the Actions of CRNAs

Kimberly Wynkoop, OMIC Legal Counsel

Digest, Summer 2012

Sedation or anesthesia for ophthalmic procedures may be administered by anesthesiologists or other qualified anesthesia providers. Ophthalmologists are exposed to legal liability for claims based on the actions of anesthetists, and OMIC’s policy is available to protect ophthalmologists if they do arise.

CRNAs as Employees or Agents

Supervising ophthalmologists may be held vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of the CRNA under various theories of liability. The most common is respondeat superior, Latin for “let the superior respond” or “let the master answer.” Also termed the “master-servant rule,” this doctrine holds an employer or principal liable for the employee’s or agent’s wrongful (or negligent) acts committed within the scope of the employment or agency.

The fact that ophthalmologists are required to supervise nurse anesthetists’ provision of services during a procedure does not, by itself, create an employer-employee relationship, nor does it prevent ophthalmologists from maintaining independent contractor relationships with them (or no formal relationships at all, such as in a hospital setting). The substance of the relationship, not the label, governs the nurse anesthetist’s status as an employee or independent contractor. In order to determine whether a CRNA would be considered an employee, there are several factors to consider.

Does the ophthalmologist have a right to direct and control how the nurse anesthetist does the task for which he or she was hired? An employee is generally subject to the employer’s instructions about when, where, and how to work.

Does the CRNA bill separately for his or her own services? Independent contractors are more likely than employees to have non-reimbursed expenses and to bill separately for their own services. Whether under contract or not, an employee often will receive benefits and his or her compensation is subject to withholdings.

Control Over Independent CRNAs

As a general rule, ophthalmologists are not held liable for the negligent acts or omissions of independent CRNAs, even if—for billing and regulatory purposes—they are deemed to be their “supervisors,” unless the ophthalmologist controls or directs the actions of the anesthesia provider. Courts generally focus on the amount of control the treating physician exercises over the anesthesia provider to determine whether the physician should be liable for the anesthetist’s actions.

To determine if a physician has such control, courts consider who hired, could terminate, and pays the anesthetist, and who has the right to direct the anesthetist in the manner and performance of his or her work. The particular test to determine whether the supervising physician controls the anesthetist’s work varies by state.

In ASC and hospital settings, ophthalmologists are often required, under CMS regulations and/or state law, to supervise nurse anesthetists and sign various anesthesia-related orders, evaluations, and reports. It is OMIC’s understanding that the role of the treating physician, with relation to the provision of anesthesia services, is to (1) determine whether a patient requires the surgery or diagnostic procedure, (2) request that anesthesia be administered, and (3) determine that the patient is an appropriate candidate for the procedure and anesthesia. Therefore, it is not uncommon for the treating physician to be asked to sign perioperative orders for anesthesia, sedation, and anxiolytic drugs and to co-sign the pre-anesthesia evaluation conducted by the nurse anesthetist in addition to signing the record of the operation prepared by the circulating nurse as well as the dictated operative report. The fact that ophthalmologists sign certain anesthesia orders, evaluations, or records could be used by a plaintiff’s attorney to attempt to prove control, but without further evidence, it would probably not be sufficient.

Even if ophthalmologists do not have general control over a CRNA, the “borrowed servant” theory of liability provides that physicians can be held liable if they “borrow” another’s employee and acquire a temporary right of control over the employee that was originally possessed by the lending employer.

Negligent Supervision and Hiring

The supervising ophthalmologist may also be held liable for the CRNA’s actions under the theories of negligent supervision and negligent hiring. Negligent supervision arises from the rationale that physicians conducting professional activities through other professionals such as CRNAs are subject to liability for any injuries caused if the physician is negligent or reckless in supervising such activity. Negligent hiring may be alleged if the ophthalmologist knew or failed to use reasonable care to discover that the CRNA was not competent, fit, licensed, or certified to perform the required duties.

OMIC’s professional liability policy covers ophthalmologists for professional services incidents arising from direct patient treatment provided by “any person acting under the supervision, direction, or control of the insured at the time of the professional services incident, so long as that person was acting within the scope of his or her licensure, training, and professional liability insurance coverage, if applicable.” In other words, OMIC’s policy covers insureds for their liability arising from the supervision of nurse anesthetists, subject to all policy terms, conditions, and exclusions.

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