In medical malpractice cases, form triumphs over substance way too often. Tennessee has been largely immune from this problem because, for years, Tennessee malpractice law did not require plaintiffs’ lawyers to jump through the hoops required by many states. Now, Tennessee has added a certificate of merit requirement and other technical obligations to filing a medical malpractice case.
You know, I’m fine with these requirements. What I don’t like is when potentially worthy plaintiffs are denied justice permanently because their lawyers screw up the details.
This is what happened in Williams v. Mountain States Health Alliance. In Williams, a 68-year-old female patient was undergoing myocardial perfusion imaging (a nuclear stress test) when she fell off the table to which she had been strapped. During the procedure, the patient made a sudden movement, broke free of the table straps, and fell onto the floor hitting her right side. Prior to the fall, the patient had suffered a stroke and paralysis to the right side of her body. Additionally, she was morbidly obese. The technicians who strapped the patient to the table allegedly knew (or should have known) this.
Plaintiff’s medical malpractice lawsuit alleged that Mountain State Health Alliance (MSHA) failed to use ordinary care in preparing the patient for the operation. In other words, the health care aides did not prevent the patient from falling and that a reasonable person with ordinary knowledge could have done so. (As an aside, a malpractice claim against health care aides or even nurses is about 10 times easier than bringing malpractice claims against a doctor because jurors are more inclined to give doctors the benefit of the doubt.)
MSHA filed a Motion to Dismiss based on the theory that the plaintiff should have pursued a medical malpractice action rather than an ordinary negligence action. MSHA argued that the patient had received specialized and specific medical care as she was being strapped to the table thus making it a medical malpractice claim instead of just ordinary negligence, triggering the plaintiff’s lawyers’ obligation to comply with the new Tennessee malpractice law. Further, MSHA argued that because the plaintiff had not complied with Tennessee’s medical malpractice statutes, the case had to be dismissed. MSHA then successfully moved to convert the Motion to Dismiss into a Motion for Summary Judgment.
Plaintiff responded by arguing that no special knowledge is needed to secure a patient for this procedure and thus the claim was properly filed as an ordinary negligence case.
I think this is a weak argument. This is a malpractice case, pure and simple. Maybe it shouldn’t be. But it is.
But the plaintiff had a better argument: Rule 59 of Tennessee Civil Procedure and common sense call for allowing the plaintiff to amend the original complaint. But the trial court was having no part of either argument and dismissed the case.
There were two issues on appeal. First, whether the trial court was in error in granting summary judgment to MSHA. And second, whether the trial court was correct to deny the plaintiff’s Rule 59 motion that asked the court to amend or reconsider the plaintiff’s previous filings.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the entry of summary judgment, finding that this case is a medical malpractice claim. No surprise there. Because medical malpractice is a category of negligence, the court stated that there is no clear line between the two types of claims. Here, the court said that certain factors must be assessed to determine what is the proper filing. The court found that the plaintiff was receiving professional care that required specific expertise, thus the plaintiff should have filed a medical malpractice action. The court also shot down the Rule 59 argument, deferring to the judgment of the trial court.
Certainly, the plaintiff has a teed up legal malpractice case against her lawyers. Why? Because this is a battle that never should have been fought in the first place. When in any doubt, assume it is a malpractice case and jump through the hoops it requires. But it really should not have come to this. We have a new law that Tennessee lawyers are still breaking in and we have an error that caused prejudice to no one. We should not put out plaintiffs at the doors of justice for such ministerial errors.