Patient Fall: Medical Malpractice or General Tort?

By Alex Stein

Courts coalesce around the view that patient fall injuries are actionable only as medical malpractice except when the care provider acts with intent or malice. This approach gives providers of medical care all the protections that benefit defendants in medical malpractice cases (compulsory suit-screening panel procedure, merit certificate / affidavit as a prerequisite for filing suit, stringent and short time-bars for filing suits that use both limitations and repose mechanisms, strict same-specialty requirement for expert witnesses, damage caps, and other protections).

The recent decision of the Louisiana Court of Appeals, White v. Glen Retirement System, — So.3d —- (La.App.2d Cir. 2016) 2016 WL 1664502, continues this trend. Read More

Medical Malpractice: The New Wave of Constitutional Attacks on Damage Caps

By Alex Stein

About forty-five years ago, tort reforms took off and states have started capping compensation awards for victims of medical malpractice. The plaintiffs bar countered this initiative by raising different constitutional challenges against caps. Those challenges alluded to equal protection, due process, separation of powers, and the general right to a jury trial. Some state courts have rejected those challenges, while other courts have struck the caps down for being unconstitutional. For discussion and the list of representative cases, see Alex Stein, Toward a Theory of Medical Malpractice, 97 Iowa L. Rev. 1201, 1253-54 (2012).

Courts’ decisions in favor and against the caps juxtaposed the victim’s entitlement to remedy against society’s interest in reducing doctors’ compensation burden and cost of liability insurance. Courts that gave precedence to the latter interest did so in the hopes to contain the cost of medical care for patients. The “trickle down” theory underlying these hopes has been questioned on empirical and doctrinal grounds. See Tom Baker, The Medical Malpractice Myth 1-21 (2005) (demonstrating that claims linking the cost of medical care to medical-malpractice liability are empirically unfounded and calling them an “urban legend”) and Stein, id. at 1247-56 (showing that, as a doctrinal matter, doctors can be found responsible for patients’ injuries only in extreme cases and that a rational physician should care more about being identified and reported to the federal databank as a malpractitioner than about how much she will pay if found liable). The Florida Supreme Court has rejected that theory in a recent decision, McCall v. United States, 134 So.3d 894 (Fla. 2014), that relied (inter alia) on Tom Baker’s work. For my discussion of this landmark decision, see here.

For obvious reasons, plaintiffs’ attorneys are loath to depend on such tradeoffs and prefer to base their claims on constitutional rights that are not subject to balancing.  Read More

Fraudulent Concealment by Nonfeasance as an Exception to the Statute of Repose

By Alex Stein

As a general rule, malpractice suits against physicians and hospitals must be filed within the repose period that starts running on the day of the alleged malpractice. Expiration of that period kills the plaintiff’s suit regardless of whether she was able to file it on time. Unlike statutes of limitations, this absolute time-bar does not depend on the accrual of the plaintiff’s cause of action nor is it subject to the discovery rule and equitable tolling. Typically, states recognize only one exception to the statute of repose: fraudulent concealment. Under that exception, when a negligent doctor or hospital intentionally gives the aggrieved patient (or her successor) false or misleading information about the treatment, the patient (or her successor) becomes entitled to toll the repose period until she becomes aware of the true facts. Many courts have ruled that this exception was only available to plaintiffs who could establish affirmative misrepresentation on the part of the doctor or the hospital. According to these decisions, fraud capable of tolling the repose period could only be committed by misfeasance, that is, by active conduct rather than by failure to disclose the relevant facts. More recent court decisions, however, obliterate the omission-commission distinction in the context of fraudulent concealment by doctors and hospitals: see, e.g., DeLuna v. Burciaga, 857 N.E.2d 229, 245-46 (Ill. 2006).

A recent decision of Michigan’s Court of Appeals, In re Estate of Doyle, 2016 WL 857204 (Mich.App.2016), continues this trend. Read More

Compulsory Arbitration Clause in Nursing Home Agreements: The NAF Saga Continues

By Alex Stein

As I reported a year ago, the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) was a designated arbitrator in thousands of nursing home agreements. When a nursing home resident complained about medical malpractice or other mistreatment, her complaint had to be arbitrated before NAF and according to NAF’s rules. If the resident or her successors were to sue the nursing home in court, the court would have to stay the proceeding and compel arbitration, as mandated by Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) that deems written arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable.”

Six and a half years ago, things have changed dramatically. In July 2009, the Minnesota Attorney General filed a complaint against NAF and related entities, accusing them of violations of the Minnesota Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act. The complaint alleged that NAF held itself out to the public as an independent arbitration company, while at the same time working against consumers’ interests and that it “earns revenue when it convinces companies to place mandatory predispute arbitration agreements in their customer agreements and then to appoint the Forum to arbitrate any future disputes.” Shortly thereafter, the parties entered into a consent judgment under which NAF agreed that it would not administer, process, or participate in any consumer arbitration filed on or after July 24, 2009.

Based on caselaw that followed this judgment, I estimated that the judgment effectively annulled the arbitration clause in thousands of agreements between nursing homes and residents. See, e.g., Riley v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 826 N.W.2d 398 (Wis.App. 2012); Estate of Cooper v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc., 2013 WL 4526274 (N.M.App. 2013); Miller v. GGNSC Atlanta, 746 S.E.2d 680 (Ga.App. 2013); Sunbridge Retirement Care Associates v. Smith, 757 S.E.2d 157 (Ga.App. 2014).

Against this estimation, the Arkansas Supreme Court has recently ruled that the arbitration clause in nursing home agreements is enforceable conditional on the substitution of NAF by a different arbitrator. The new arbitrator, the Court held, will decide the parties’ dispute by applying the NAF procedural code for arbitration. Courtyard Gardens Health and Rehabilitation, LLC v. Arnold, — S.W.3d —- (Ark. 2016). Read More

Malpractice, Apologies and the Statute of Limitations in Federally Qualified Health Centers

By Alex Stein

Two months ago, the Seventh Circuit has delivered another important decision with regard to medical malpractice actions filed against federally qualified health centers. Blanche v. United States, 811 F.3d 953 (7th Cir. 2016). See also Arteaga v. United States, 711 F.3d 828 (7th Cir. 2013), and Sanchez v. United States, 740 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2014), discussed here.

Such actions can only be filed in federal courts pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), but patients and – worse – their attorneys are often unaware of this fact. As a result, by the time they properly file a suit, the FTCA’s two-year limitations period expires and the patient’s cause of action against the United States becomes time barred. See 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). I call this problem “FTCA’s Trap for the Unwary.” To salvage the suit, the patient can petition for equitable tolling, but her chances of being granted equitable tolling are slim (in courts that still interpret the FTCA’s limitations provision as jurisdictional, those chances do not even exist). Read More

Can Negligent Providers of Medical Care Use the Patient’s Self-Destructive Behavior to Fend Off Liability?

By Alex Stein

The Colorado Supreme Court recently delivered an important decision on medical malpractice, P.W. v. Children’s Hospital Colorado, — P.3d —- (Colo. 2016), 2016 WL 297287. This decision denied a hospital the comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses that purported to shift to the patient the duty to eliminate or reduce the risk that the hospital was obligated to guard against.

The defendant hospital admitted a known suicidal patient to its secure mental health unit and placed him under high suicide-risk precautions. The hospital’s staff failed to follow those precautions by allowing the patient to be alone in a bathroom for twenty minutes. During these twenty minutes, the patient hanged himself with his scrub pants and suffered a devastating anoxic brain injury. Read More

Disciplinary Proceedings Against Experts Testifying in Medical Malpractice Cases

By Alex Stein

Witnesses have a general immunity against private suits in connection with their testimony (Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 345-46 (1983)). Perjury prosecution is their only fear. For expert witnesses testifying about their opinions rather than empirical facts, perjury prosecution is not even a viable prospect. Doctors testifying as experts in malpractice suits filed against their professional peers, however, may face disciplinary proceedings in medical associations to which they affiliate. The consequences of those proceedings for doctors can be quite devastating. They include expulsion and loss of job opportunities. Moreover, a negative finding against a doctor can impeach her as an expert witness in a subsequent court proceeding, which will make lawyers reluctant to retain her as an expert in the first place.

Yet, the only protection that those doctors get from the law is basic due process. All they are entitled to as defendants before their professional disciplinary board is a notice about the complaints or charges and the right to be heard and present evidence. Worse yet, violation of this basic due process right does not entitle the doctor to void the negative disciplinary finding automatically.

The recent Fifth Circuit decision, Barrash v. American Ass’n of Neurological Surgeons, Inc., — F.3d —- (5th Cir. 2016), 2016 WL 374134, is a case in point. Read More

Hospitals’ Exposure to Products Liability Suits

By Alex Stein

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut has recently delivered an important decision that opens up new possibilities for suing hospitals and clinics. This decision allowed a patient alleging that hospital employees injected her with a contaminated medication to sue the hospital in products liability. Gallinari v. Kloth, — F.Supp.3d —- (U.S.D.C. D.Conn. 2015), 2015 WL 7758835. Read More

Products Liability or Medical Malpractice? The Definition of a “Healthcare Provider”

By Alex Stein

Every defendant in a suit for medically inflicted injuries wants to be a “healthcare provider.” This status entitles the defendant to categorize the suit as “medical malpractice” and become eligible to special litigation advantages, which include shortened limitations and repose periods, dismissal of suits not verified by experts, and statutory caps on damages.

In Verticor, Ltd. v. Wood, — S.W.3d —- 2015 WL 7166024 (Tex.App.–Austin 2015), the manufacturer of Eclipse Shield – a spinal implant for fusion – claimed to be a “healthcare provider” for purposes of the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA). The purpose of this claim was to recharacterize the products liability action filed against Verticor into a “healthcare liability claim” that can proceed to court only upon showing of medical malpractice verified by an expert. To establish this claim, Verticor argued that it provides the Eclipse Shield “for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient’s medical care, treatment, or confinement” under its “device manufacturer” license. This service, explained Verticor, makes it a “healthcare provider.” Read More