When can a hospital be held responsible for losing a patient’s property? Virginia Koss recently sued Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center in Danville, Kentucky, after her wedding ring and her late husband’s wedding ring disappeared following a surgery.
According to the lawsuit, Koss (along with her family) instructed employees not to remove her two wedding rings, but Ephraim McDowell hospital staff later confirmed that the rings were in fact removed sometime during surgery. The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees.
What Claims Could Virginia Koss Make Against the Hospital?
Koss could have made a claim that Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center violated bailment law. Bailment refers to the process of placing personal property in the temporary custody of another. The new holder of the property (who is responsible for its eventual return), is known as the bailee. The person who delivers the property to the bailee is known as the bailor. The bailor can order the property returned to them at any time. Although Virginia Koss never asked hospital staff to take possession of her rings, she could argue that the hospital became responsible for the rings when they removed them from her hand.
All bailment situations stipulate that the bailee has a duty of care to ensure the safety of the property they have been entrusted with. A bailee can be held legally liable for a failure to uphold the duty of care. A bailee can also be held liable if he uses the property without the bailor’s permission or (as in the case of Virginia Koss) doesn’t return the property to the bailor upon request.
Could Koss’s Lawsuit against the Hospital Be Successful?
However, just stating that Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center violated its duty as a bailor does not guarantee that Virginia Koss will be compensated for her lost rings. This is because the degree of the bailee’s duty of care can depend on whether the bailment was intended for the sole benefit of the owner of the property (the bailor) or the bailee.
To be more specific, if the bailee entered into a bailment that came with no benefit for the bailor, the bailee only has to answer for gross neglect or fraud. On the other hand, if goods are entrusted to the bailee for their sole benefit (like if your neighbor asks to borrow your car) then the bailee owes the bailor “extraordinary care.”
Making the case that Virginia Koss lost her rings as a result of the hospital’s gross negligence could prove difficult. If gross negligence can be defined as serious carelessness, what sort of actions, exactly, would the hospital have to have taken for the loss of Koss’s rings to meet that standard? After all, hospital staff asked Koss to remove her rings before her surgery, but she refused to comply. To be sure, Koss’s wish to not have her rings removed does not mean that she deserved to lose them. However, it does raise the question: did Koss herself violate hospital policy?
Many hospitals require patients to sign a form acknowledging the risk of loss of property, including a waiver of liability for their property. Also, hospitals generally warn patients not to bring in valuable items like jewelry before a procedure. Could the hospital staff’s removal of Koss’s rings have been an effort to follow hospital policy, with the loss of the rings an unfortunate but not necessarily grossly negligent action?
Koss’s attorney Joshua S. Harp doesn’t think so. He called Koss’s case “really kind of simple,” saying: “They [hospital staff] asked her to take off her rings. She said no. And they took them off anyway.”
Though the way Harp describes Koss’s case makes it sound open-and-shut, this is not necessarily true. The court will have to decide if the hospital’s removal of Koss’s rings constituted gross negligence or if it was in adherence to procedure that led to an unfortunate mistake that the hospital was not liable for.
Authored by Andrea Babinec, LegalMatch Legal Writer