Evaluating the Impact of Recent Tennessee Case Law on Health Care Personal Injury Claims

As previously discussed on this blog, earlier in 2015 the Tennessee Supreme Court handed down a decision that appeared likely to change the landscape of personal injury claims that arise in a health care context. Contrary to prior precedent on the issue, the Court held that new changes to the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act (THCLA) required personal injury plaintiffs  who alleged an injury or another type of civil claim against a health care provider or its employees to meet the strict requirements of the THCLA. While previously plaintiffs could allege ordinary negligence claims distinct from claims under the THCLA, the Court’s decision in Ellithorpe v. Weismark suggested that the new language of the statute would make it difficult for plaintiffs to circumvent the THCLA’s requirements.  In a recent Tennessee decision, the far-reaching impact of the Ellithorpe decision is apparent.

In Estate of Phyllis Thibodeau v. St. Thomas Hospital, the Tennessee Court of Appeals was asked to consider whether a plaintiff’s claim of ordinary negligence against a hospital could survive after the plaintiff failed to meet the pre-lawsuit filing requirements of the THCLA. In this case, one of the plaintiffs, Ms. Thibodeau, was hospitalized at St. Thomas for severe knee pain. After receiving treatment, she was discharged, and several hospital employees assisted her husband in transporting her to their vehicle. However, in the process, Ms. Thibodeau fell and experienced new injuries to her ankle. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband filed a personal injury action against St. Thomas Hospital for the injuries she experienced. In response, the Hospital asserted that the plaintiffs’ claim was really a “health care claim” subject to the THCLA and should be dismissed for failing to meet the THCLA requirements.

The plaintiffs, however, argued that the claim was an ordinary negligence claim not subject to the THCLA. The trial court denied the hospital’s motion, holding that the plaintiffs’ ordinary negligence claim was not encompassed by the THCLA. However, on appeal, the Court of Appeals held its decision while awaiting the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling in Ellithorpe.

Following the publication of the Ellithorpe decision, the Court of Appeals determined that it was required to evaluate whether the plaintiffs’ ordinary negligence claim constituted a “health care liability action” under the THCLA.  If so, it would be subject to the provisions of the statute. If not, the claim could continue as an ordinary negligence claim. The court determined that Ms. Thibodeau’s complaint was against a health care provider for a failure to provide health care services by a health care employee, and accordingly it fell directly within the statutory definition of a health care liability action. Specifically, the statute explicitly provides that health care services includes “custodial or basic care, positioning  . . . and similar patient services.”  Tenn. Code. Ann. Section 29-26-101(b). Accordingly, the Court concluded that since the claim fell within the THCLA, and the THCLA filing requirements had not been met, the claim could be dismissed.

As previously discussed, decisions in the wake of Ellithorpe are likely to continue to limit a plaintiff’s ability to bring a personal injury claim against a health care provider without meeting the requirements of the THCLA. As evidenced by the plaintiff’s circumstances in this case, the concept of a “health care liability action” can be, and is likely to be, broadly construed, often against plaintiffs with otherwise adequate negligence claims.

Medical malpractice attorney Eric Beasley has extensive experience representing Tennessee plaintiffs in health care-related personal injury and medical malpractice claims, and he can help you evaluate whether your claims may now fall under the THCLA. If you have recently been injured in a health care-related incident, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Alleging Personal Injury in the Health Care Context – Abiding By the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act, Tennessee Injury Lawyer Blog, October 29, 2015.

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