Tennessee Court of Appeals Rules in Medical Malpractice “Grey Area” Case

In a recent premises liability case, Coggins v. Holston Valley Medical Center, Tenn. Ct. App. (2015), the Tennessee Court of Appeals had to determine whether a slip and fall that occurred within a hospital was properly controlled by the statute of limitations for an ordinary negligence claim, or that of a medical malpractice claim.

In the case, a woman and her husband were visiting a patient in the hospital. During the visit, the woman allegedly tripped over a feeding tube and sustained serious injuries. The woman alleged that the tube had been left in a negligent manner and that it created a dangerous condition.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs served the hospital with a pre-suit notice of intent to sue.

In response, the hospital filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. The trial court held that the plaintiffs’ action was an ordinary negligence claim based upon premises liability and that the plaintiffs could not rely on the statute of limitations being extended on the basis of their pre-suit notice since that fell within the medical malpractice statute.

However, the section granting the extension of the statute of limitations explicitly stated that if the plaintiffs mistakenly, but in good faith, believed that the case was within the parameters of the statute in question, the complaint may be legally considered to have been timely filed.

The court engaged in a lengthy discussion of the case law history regarding the confusion as to whether cases should be filed as medical malpractice or ordinary cases. It noted that a significant amount of decisions were published regarding this issue. Then, in 2011, the Tennessee Legislature passed a statute regarding “health care liability,” which states:

(1) “Health care liability action” means any civil action, including claims against the state or a political subdivision thereof, alleging that a health care provider or providers have caused an injury related to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services to a person, regardless of the theory of liability on which the action is based; Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101 [emphasis added].

In conjunction with the separate statutory act, the legislature also amended some 58 sections of the Tennessee code, replacing the terms “malpractice” and “medical malpractice” with “health care liability.” Therefore, the plaintiffs erroneously believed that this was a health care liability action.

The Court of Appeals referred to a 2011 decision in Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546 (Tenn. 2011), which definitively sets the standard for determining whether a cause of action falls under malpractice statutory law or ordinary negligence:

[W]hen a claim alleges negligent conduct which constitutes or bears a substantial relationship to the rendition of medical treatment by a medical professional, the medical malpractice statute is applicable. Conversely, when the conduct alleged is not substantially related to the rendition of medical treatment by a medical professional, the medical malpractice statute does not apply.

Therefore, according to the Estate of French test, the claim was clearly one that should have been considered as ordinary negligence. In taking into consideration all of the facts, and the nature of the confusion surrounding the new terminology, the court found that the plaintiffs did file their claim in good faith, and therefore the court decided the claim should legally be considered timely, even though it was not filed within the relevant one-year period ordinarily allowed for ordinary negligence claims.

Therefore, the Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

As this case illustrates, it can be difficult to prove negligence under the standards set forth by Tennessee law in some cases. However, a skilled slip and fall lawyer can identify the most favorable facts for a plaintiff in order to present the best possible case to a judge or jury. If you or someone you love has suffered injuries because of somebody else’s negligence or wrongdoing, contact the Nashville injury attorneys at MHPS. For an initial consultation, contact one of our attorneys today by emailing info@mhpslaw.com or calling (615) 800-7096.

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