Alleging Personal Injury in the Health Care Context – Abiding by the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act

In Tennessee, when a personal injury claim arises in the health care context, it may be subject to the particular requirements and restrictions of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act (“THCLA”). The THCLA was enacted in order to reduce the number of frivolous and time- consuming medical malpractice claims brought in the state, and it imposes stricter requirements on plaintiffs asserting personal injury claims against hospitals and medical providers. How does a personal injury victim determine if the THCLA applies to his or her claims? A recent decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court has answered this question, suggesting that virtually all personal injury claims in the health care context may need to meet the requirements of the THCLA.

The case, Ellithorpe v. Weismark, No. M2014-00279-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Oct. 8, 2015), considers when a claim “sound[s] in health care liability,” as opposed to being only a basic negligence claim, and is thus subject to the THCLA. In Ellithorpe, the estranged parents of a minor child, M.L., sued a social worker who was providing counseling to M.L on a regular basis.  The parents contended that they had not been informed of the counseling and that it was being provided without their consent. They further alleged that this “secret” counseling had caused harm to their child in the form of emotional distress.  They filed a complaint for damages against the social worker without abiding by the pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith requirements of the THCLA.  In response, the social worker filed a motion to dismiss the parents’ complaint because of their failure to comply with these procedural requirements.

The trial court dismissed the parents’ complaint with prejudice, finding no merit in the parents’ argument that their claims were ordinary negligence claims, not claims subject to the THCLA. On appeal, the Court of Appeals cautioned that a more nuanced approach was required, in light of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s prior decision in Estate of French v. Stratford House, which instructed courts to carefully consider the context of a party’s claims in order to determine “whether they sound in ordinary negligence or health care liability.” Accordingly, the case was remanded for further consideration of the nature of the parents’ claim.

In a significant move by the Tennessee Supreme Court, however, the Court held that the approach of Estate of French had been abrogated by recent legislative changes to the THCLA, which removed all references to “medical malpractice” and replaced them with the term “health care liability.” While the Court had previously held that the distinction between medical malpractice claims and ordinary negligence claims was a subtle one, requiring courts to closely analyze the specific facts of each case to determine whether the THCLA applied, these legislative changes eliminated the need for such analysis.

Instead, in Ellithorpe, the Tennessee Supreme Court determined that the legislative definition of “health care liability,” which included “any civil action . . . alleging that a health care provider or providers have caused an injury . . . .,” was clearly meant to encompass any lawsuit or claim against a health care provider, and accordingly Estate of French was no longer applicable.  Therefore, since the parents’ complaint was made against a social worker, a licensed health care provider under Tennessee law, and alleged an injury, it clearly fell within the procedural requirements of the THCLA.  For this reason, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the case with prejudice, pursuant to the statute.

Ellithorpe is of significant importance to personal injury plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys throughout the state who may be considering filing personal injury claims against individuals in the health care field. Even if the subject matter of the suit may be only tangentially related to the provision of health care services, Ellithorpe suggests that Tennessee plaintiffs should err on the side of caution and make sure to abide by the notice and good-faith requirements of the THCLA in order to avoid having their claims dismissed at a later date.

Medical malpractice attorney Eric Beasley has extensive experience representing Tennessee plaintiffs in health care-related personal injury and medical malpractice claims, including claims under the THCLA. If you have recently been injured in a health care-related incident and are considering filing a claim in Tennessee court, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Making the Case for Punitive Damages in Tennessee – What’s Required Under the Law?,  Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 22, 2015

Tennessee Personal Injury Claims Increase Despite Reduction in Auto Accidents, Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 15, 2015

Questioning the Constitutionality of Tennessee’s Cap on Pain and Suffering Damages After an Automobile Accident, Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 7, 2015