Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession (6)7 Jul 98


Quick Summary: A healthcare facility must warn its employees who contract contagious infections on the job how to keep their family members from contracting infections from them.

A healthcare facility must take proper measures for infection control to prevent spread of disease among patients and to caregivers. SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA, 1998.


   The nursing home’s infection control nurse sent several nursing assistants to a dermatologist for skin lesions. The dermatologist concluded they had contracted staph infections while bathing and taking blood pressures from nursing home residents with staph infections.

   The nursing assistants were given worker’s compensation time loss and medical expense payments, as their staph infections were deemed an on-the-job occupational occurrence.

   Some of the nursing assistants’ spouses contracted staph infections of their own and sued the nursing home, pointing to the link to their spouses’ jobs established by the treating dermatologist. The Supreme Court of Alaska upheld the spouses’ right to sue the nursing home. It overturned a lower court’s decision to throw out the whole case without giving the spouses their day in court.

   The Supreme Court of Alaska recognized that potential sources of staph infection are widespread. When the spouses went back to the lower court to have their day in court, they would have to prove conclusively their own skin problems came from the nursing home via their spouses’ exposure on the job.

   The court faulted the nursing home, first of all, for inadequate infection control measures which allowed residents to contract staph infections and for those infections to spread among residents and to staff.

   The court did not delve into the specifics of infection control in a nursing home, that subject being covered extensively by Federal and state regulations and accreditation standards.

   The specific issue in the case was whether a healthcare facility’s responsibility for infection control inside its walls creates a legal responsibility extending outside those walls to family members of its caregiving staff. The court said cargivers’ family members do have the right to sue, assuming they can produce solid proof that a lapse in infection control practices within the facility has had the effect of infecting them with a contagious disease.

   The court also ruled that when a caregiving staff member contracts a contagious infection on the job the facility must warn the staff member of the risk of spreading it to family members and the facility must provide instructions geared to the specific infectious agent how spread of that agent to family members can be avoided. Bolieu v. Sisters of Providence in Washington, 953 P. 2d 1233 (Alaska, 1998).