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Ebola Nurse's Lawsuit: 3 Lessons for Personal Injury Cases

The Texas nurse who contracted Ebola from a patient has filed a lawsuit against the hospital where she worked. Nina Pham alleges the hospital’s negligence led to her catching the deadly disease and is seeking compensation for continuing physical and emotional effects.

Although some additional claims focus on the invasion of Pham’s privacy and fraud on the part of the hospital, there are a few legal lessons to be gleaned from the nurse’s injury claims. For example:

1. Standard Negligence.

Pham’s primary claim against Texas Health Resources (THR) is employer negligence — basically, that the hospital owed her a duty of care and failed to fulfill that duty. Specifically, Pham alleges that THR was aware of the Ebola threat; was in charge of the hospital’s Ebola response; and failed to adequately prepare, notify, train, and equip the hospital’s staff to deal with the disease.

Although Pham has been declared Ebola-free, she’s suing over persistent nightmares, uncertain long-term effects of the disease, and the side-effects of experimental drugs taken to counteract the virus. In order for her claim to be successful, she will have to prove that her injuries are real and that THR’s negligence caused them.

2. Negligent Undertaking.

This charge refers to something called the Restatement of Torts, a summary of general legal principles. The Restatement explains:

One who undertakes, gratuitously or for consideration, to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of the other’s person or things, is subject to liability to the other for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care to perform his undertaking, if
(a) his failure to exercise such care increases the risk of such harm, or
(b) the harm is suffered because of the other’s reliance upon the undertaking.

Pham is contending that THR undertook hospital policies and procedures, including the response to the Ebola infections, and failed to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling those duties. While this is a lot like a standard negligence claim, it seeks to impose liability based on THR’s voluntary undertaking of responsibility for Pham and other staff.

3. Premises Liability.

Premises liability refers to the obligation of property owners to keep their property safe. Just how safe depends on the kind of visitor who may or may not be injured on the property. Pham contends she was an “invitee,” someone invited onto THR’s property, and was therefore owed the highest duty of care from the hospital.

The idea behind Pham’s attempts to raise the standard of care owed to her by THR is to raise the bar to a level that the hospital cannot meet, therefore making it liable for her injuries and likely to pay her damages.

Pham’s case is in the early stages of what could be complex litigation, and it is possible she and the hospital could reach a settlement before trial.

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