Science and Law: Wilmington General Hospital v. Manlove: What is the duty of a hospital?

February 4, 2015

Science and Law


February 3, 2015
Published by Joseph Lachman

Science and law have a complicated relationship. As medicine and science progress, new legal space is created, and over time Common Law, the kind created through judicial precedents, seeks to fill that space. Here, I’ll be covering some of the major cases involving medical science and the law. Our first is Wilmington General v. Manlove, which teaches us about the legal duties of a hospital and its physicians.

Wilmington General Hospital v. Manlove (1961)
174 A.2d 135

Case Background:

  • Two parents brought their, after experiencing two days of fever, sleeplessness, and diarrhea. The hospital nurse refused to admit the baby to the emergency room. She told the baby’s parents that it was the hospital’s policy not to treat patients already under care of a physician. The child died of bronchial pneumonia before the parents could meet with the physician, and the parents sued to hold the hospital responsible.

What issues are being debated?

  • Does a private hospital have an obligation to see all patients that enter the emergency room, even if they have a regular physician?
  • Was the baby exhibiting symptoms of an unmistakable emergency? Does this change hospitals and physicians’ duty to treat?

How was the law interpreted and applied in this case?

  • The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed a private hospital’s right to deny admission to patients it does not desire to admit, but also reaffirmed the responsibility of a hospital that has willingly chosen to maintain an emergency ward to treat any patient who comes to that ward experiencing an unmistakable emergency.
  • Hospitals do not have a duty to treat all patients in general, but do have a duty to serve people in the emergency room if circumstances do not allow them to seek a different facility without negative health consequences resulting from a delay.

Further Analysis

There is an important distinction to remember in this case. Wilmington is a private hospital, and although it receives some public funds, it does not accept the same responsibilities to accept patients and follow regulations as a state-run hospital. However, hospitals now cannot turn away patients who are in the middle of a crisis, including illness, injury, or childbirth. This also gets to the issue of patient-dumping, when hospitals try to prevent admitting patients who will be unable to pay for treatment, which I will discuss in a later case.

Also see: Bioethics and Public Health Law by Orentlicher, Bobinski, and Hall.

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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