Kenneth S. Abraham

Enterprise Medical Liability and the Choice of the Responsible Enterprise

CO-AUTHORS Paul C. Weiler
American Journal of Law & Medicine

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations


During the last year, the proposal of "enterprise" liability for medical malpractice became a major issue in debates about health care and malpractice reform. The idea, however, was not new. In scholarly work over an extended period, we have been developing the systematic case for the concept of enterprise - or, as we originally termed it, "organizational" - liability for medical malpractice. After several years of debating the critics of our proposal to shift the focus of liability for medical injury from individual physicians to the organizations that deliver health care, we were naturally gratified that the idea was now on the national agenda.

In particular, we recommended adoption of enterprise liability to Presiderit Clinton's Health Care Task Force. The Task Force did embrace a version of the idea as its own, but then encountered stiff resistance from a number of special interests. Finally, however, a proposal for enterprise liability demonstration projects was included in the legislation submitted to Congress last Fall. The Article in this issue by WilliamSage, Kathleen Hastings, and Robert Berenson ("SH&B"), who headed the Administration's malpractice reform working group, makes an eloquent case for imposing enterprise liability for medical malpractice on the "Health Plans" that would be the vehicle for assuring health care under the Administration's proposal. 

Once an affirmative answer is given to the question whether some form of enterprise medical liability, "EML," is preferable to the traditional system of individual physician liability, the most important issue to be addressed is the choice of the responsible enterprise. In this Article we outline our views on that issue, contrasting our position, favoring imposing liability on hospitals and similar health-care delivery organizations, with the SH&B proposal to impose such liability on Health Plans.

Ultimately, the choice of the responsible enterprise turns on the social objectives that tort liability is designed to serve. In our view delivery-based liability of the sort we have proposed would best serve the multiple criteria a sound tort system must satisfy. Delivery-based liability would most effectively promote the goals of medical injury prevention and quality assurance that SH&B themselves believe to be the major advantage of enterprise liability. In addition, delivery-based enterprise liability would be a superior approach to the provision of insurance against and compensation for medical injury, and would outperform any other form of medical liability in reducing the administrative burdens of the tort system. Along each of these dimensions our proposal would mesh more closely than other alternatives with the underlying goals of tort liability: promoting optimal prevention, providing reasonable compensation to accident victims, and minimizing the administrative costs of a fault-based liability system. Importantly, from the point of view of past and future victims of medical injury, delivery-based enterprise liability also would improve upon the protective benefits of tort liability, rather than merely shrink the burdens of that regime now experienced by physicians.



Kenneth S. Abraham & Paul C. Weiler, Enterprise Medical Liability and the Choice of the Responsible Enterprise, 20 American Journal of Law & Medicine 29–36 (1994).

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