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False Imprisonment in Healthcare

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 05, 2015 6:59 AM

False imprisonment is the intentional unlawful confinement of a person against their will. It comes in many forms and does not require physical restraint necessarily. When it happens in the medical context it is particularly scary.

In healthcare, false imprisonment happens when a patient is held involuntarily in a hospital, nursing home, other health facility or institution, or even in an ambulance. A critical element of the claim is consciousness of confinement. In other words, the person held had to reasonably believe they could not leave.

Right to Refuse Treatment

Although nurses or patients may disagree with the wisdom of such a decision, in most situations, patients do have the right to refuse treatment. Exceptions arise for mental incompetence, patients who are a danger to self or others, or where capacity is diminished due to drug or alcohol use.

Doctors and hospitals "ought to operate under the assumption that they can never hold a patient against their will. Although there are exceptions, that is the starting point," said Alan Meisel, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, who spoke to American Medical News about false imprisonment in the healthcare context.

The decision to let a patient go is nonetheless difficult for a medical professional. Honoring the patient's right to refuse treatment may subject the healthcare worker and their institution to liability for negligence. Meisel suggests that healthcare professionals have a protocol prepared for such cases and familiarize themselves with state guidelines for emergency admissions without patient consent.

Criminal and Civil Cases

Following state guidelines for involuntary admissions does not immunize a healthcare facility or its workers from claims, however. False imprisonment can be a criminal offense; in the medical context it will most often arise in a civil suit as an intentional tort.

To prove it, the claimant must show the following, although the precise way these elements are articulated and laid out varies from state to state;

  • There was intent to detain;
  • There was confinement without consent;
  • The detention was unlawful, or not in a privileged context;
  • The detainee was aware of being held.

Defenses to False Imprisonment

A defense to false imprisonment is consent to confinement, whether express or implied. So if the circumstances are such that the person held did not give consent orally or in writing but other aspects of the situation indicate consent, the healthcare worker or institution may still have a defense.

If you believe you were falsely imprisoned, speak to an attorney who is knowledgeable in torts law. Lawsuits are always complicated and taking on a medical institution is no mean feat. Have your claim reviewed by an expert.

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