Health care providers must be especially careful of false imprisonment situations because the courts are allowed to award punitive damages to a falsely imprisoned patient. The only effective defense against a suit for false imprisonment is to rely on relevant state laws about emergency confinement of patients. These laws vary from state to state and should be carefully researched for the state where the facility is located.
In general, the state laws on emergency confinement are intended for mentally ill patients and will not protect the hospital for detaining a competent patient. If it is necessary to detain a patient to prevent immediate harm from cessation of medical care, the health care provider may be able to get a court order based on the failure of the patient to understand the situation. The law allows the greatest freedom of action when a temporarily incompetent patient is involved. This is common intensive care units, where a confused patient will pull out the tubes and head for the exit, often stark naked. While restraining such a patient might technically be false imprisonment, it is clear that the hospital would have greater liability if it did not restrain the patient. If there is a valid medical reason for restraining a patient for a short time, the courts are unlikely to consider it a false imprisonment.
False imprisonment is likely to be found only when there is no acute harm threatened and the patient is competent. In the unconsented transfer situation, it is likely that a competent patient would be able to maintain a suit for false imprisonment. In this case, there would be a forcible transfer to the ambulance and the holding of the patient in the ambulance. This is legally very different from simply restraining a temporarily incompetent patient. If the patient were unconscious, there would not be any false imprisonment because the patient would not be aware of the limitations on the patient's actions. The situation of an unconscious patient presents other consent problems, but it does not present a false imprisonment problem.
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