Court Rules a Physician’s Required Independent Judgment Does Not Make Them an Independent Contractor

On December 4, in the District of New Mexico, Judge Gregory Wormuth ruled that under New Mexico state law, the test for when a physician is considered an employee must be modified to take into account the independent professional judgment mandated with the practice of medicine. 

The court explained that in February 2017, the sister of the plaintiffs underwent surgery. Following the surgery, the sister was placed in the care of the defendant physician. The same day that the physician discharged the sister, she died. The plaintiffs subsequently brought suit for wrongful death and medical malpractice against the defendant in November 2019, two years and eight months after the injury alleged in the complaint. 

The defendant sought to throw out the plaintiffs’ case on grounds that the plaintiffs were barred from such a suit for filing after the relevant statute of limitations had expired. The defendant argued that he was a public employee of a public hospital at the time of the alleged misconduct. As such, the defendant proffered that the appropriate statute of limitations was two years as the plaintiffs’ legal matter fell under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (TCA). 

The plaintiffs argued otherwise, averring that the defendant was an independent contractor of the public hospital. Thus, the siblings purported, the appropriate statute of limitations was three years as the legal matter fell under New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act (MMA) and not the TCA. 

The plaintiffs centered the argument of the defendant being an independent contractor around the level of independent judgment the hospital allowed the physician to utilize when providing medical care to the public hospital’s patients. 

The court sided with the defendant and granted the party’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the TCA statute of limitations applied to the plaintiffs’ legal action. The court explained that the defendant was indeed a public employee as the hospital determined the physician’s schedule, mandated where the physician rendered medical services, and even designated general deadlines on how to practice medicine when doing so with hospital patients. 

The court elaborated that the level of independent judgment exercised by the defendant did not weight against the physician being regarded as an employee of the public hospital, as the job of practicing medicine “require(d) that he have free and complete exercise of his medical judgment and skill.” 

The plaintiffs are  represented by Lilley & O’Connell. The defendant is represented by Atwood, Malone, Turner & Sabin