COVID-19: Responsibility and Accountability in a World of Rationing

28 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2020 Last revised: 12 May 2020

See all articles by Robert H. Jerry, II

Robert H. Jerry, II

University of Missouri Law School; University of Florida, Levin College of Law

Date Written: May 11, 2020

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first modern public health crisis with the potential to overwhelm the public health care system. Health care is a shared society resource, and thus the ethical principles guiding its rationing require health care services, drugs, and equipment to be applied where they are most effective, which gives priority to patients most likely to benefit from treatment. Health care providers—primarily physicians—will make these rationing decisions, and providers deserve considerable latitude for good-faith decisions guided by settled ethical frameworks. Those disadvantaged by these decisions are likely to second-guess those who make them. Providers have a responsibility to make these decisions fairly, both procedurally and substantively, and, like all professionals, they should be held accountable for them. The legal standard of care requires health care professionals to exercise the skill and knowledge normally possessed by providers in good standing in the same field or class of practice in similar communities acting in the same or similar circumstances. But practicing medicine in crisis conditions, like those created by COVID-19, is not the same as or similar to practicing in non-crisis conditions. Thus, the standard of care, properly applied, expects less of health care professionals making decisions under the stress of COVID-19’s triage conditions. Because many health care providers do not perceive this to be true, and for pragmatic and normative reasons, policymakers should articulate clearer rules that limit the liability for health care providers’ rationing decisions, as well as other acts and omissions, occurring in crisis conditions. Clarified limitations on liability should not create absolute immunities, however. Health care providers should be accountable when practicing in crisis conditions for their acts, omissions, and decisions—including rationing decisions—that are criminal, reckless, willful or wanton, grossly negligent, or unlawfully discriminatory, or that are intentional violations of settled ethical norms.

Keywords: COVID, coronavirus, virus, COVID-19, health, risk, liability, providers, ethical, criminal, discriminatory

Suggested Citation

Jerry, Robert H., COVID-19: Responsibility and Accountability in a World of Rationing (May 11, 2020). University of Missouri School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-12. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3580228

Robert H. Jerry (Contact Author)

University of Missouri Law School ( email )

University of Florida, Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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