As “Captain Obvious” would no doubt note: doctors get sued. Medical malpractice lawsuits are filed every day in which a patient alleges that a physician failed to adhere to the appropriate standard of care. But doctors get sued for other reasons and by folks other than those they treat. Medicine is a business as well as a profession, and like other businessmen and women, doctors can get sued by people or entities they do business with, including the government.
That is one of many reasons physicians form medical corporations, limited liability companies, or professional service corporations. These specialized entities can shield the personal assets of physicians who act as officers, directors, or shareholders when lawsuits by creditors or other liabilities confront their business. But that protection is not absolute, and doctors can find their personal assets in the crosshairs of a determined litigant if they fail to adhere to the requisite “standard of care” in managing their entity.
“Piercing the Corporate Veil”
“Piercing the corporate veil” is the term used to describe imposing personal liability on a company’s owner(s) for a corporate obligation. Plaintiffs often attempt to pierce the corporate veil when the company they are suing is insolvent or would be otherwise unable or unlikely to pay any judgment entered against it.
Veil-piercing allows a court to “impose liability on an individual or entity that uses a corporation merely as an instrumentality to conduct that individual’s or entity’s business.” Fontana v. TLD Builders, Inc., 362 Ill. App. 3d 491, 500 (2005)
Illinois courts use a two-prong test to determine whether to pierce the corporate veil:
- there must be such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and the individual no longer exist; and
- circumstances must exist such that adherence to the fiction of a separate corporate existence would sanction a fraud, promote injustice, or promote inequitable consequences.”
In determining whether the “unity of interest and ownership” prong of the test is met for a medical business entity, a court will consider many factors, including:
- inadequate capitalization;
- failure to follow corporate formalities
- commingling of funds;
- diversion of assets from the entity by or to a member to the detriment of creditors;
- failure to maintain arm’s-length relationships among related entities; and
- whether, in fact, the entity is a mere facade for the operation of the dominant members.
Medical Entities Do Not Shield Doctors from Malpractice Liability
While a properly organized and managed entity can protect a doctor’s personal assets from creditors and business-related claims, it affords no such protection against medical malpractice claims. The Illinois Medical Corporation Act specifically provides that it “does not alter any law applicable to the relationship between a physician furnishing medical service and a person receiving such service, including liability arising out of such service.”
Similarly, the Illinois Professional Service Corporation Act states that physician officers, shareholders, or directors “remain personally and fully liable and accountable for any negligent or wrongful acts or misconduct committed by him, or by any ancillary personnel or person under his direct supervision and control, while rendering professional services on behalf of the corporation to the person for whom such professional services were being rendered.”
If you are a physician who has an interest in an Illinois medical practice, it is critical that you understand that the protections afforded to your assets aren’t set in stone just because you formed a corporate entity. I work closely with physicians and their entities to implement programs and protocols designed to minimize risks, including the risk of personal liability for their business obligations. If you need assistance with your medical practice’s legal obligations, please give me a call at 312-236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation.