Failed Communication between Physicians: Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?

Zamora v. St. Vincent Hosp., — P.3d — (N.M. 2014)

In this case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a patient’s allegation that physicians’ communication failure had denied him proper treatment sounds in general negligence and not in medical malpractice and, consequently, requires no expert testimony.

In the case at bar, a hospital patient alleged that as the result of a communication failure between a surgeon and a contract radiologist, the hospital failed to tell him about his cancer diagnosis. The Court decided that the patient need not verify this allegation by calling a medical expert. It explained that “Communication between medical personnel is not a matter that requires expert knowledge to understand the standard of care involved. A party may be able to establish that a departure from the standard of ordinary care occurs when a clerical error affects the timeliness or accuracy of a diagnosis.” This decision relied on precedents from other jurisdictions.

I believe that such cases are best decided individually under the “common knowledge” exceptions. There are cases in which experts may be needed to testify about doctors’ internal communication standards.