A recent Louisiana Court of Appeals decision shows that the question of which type of claim to file after an injury, general tort or medical malpractice, can make or break a case against a health care provider.
In February 2008, Helen Williams was a patient receiving oxygen at Pointe Coupee General Hospital (“PCGH”) in New Roads, Louisiana. Early one morning nurses noticed smoke coming out of a piece of radiology equipment and the fire department was called. By the time the fire department got there, the hospital sprinkler system had already put out the fire which had been confined to the radiology department. However, the decision was made to move patients to the east side of the hospital, behind fire doors. Physicians discussed which patients could be discharged or moved to a local nursing home. They chose to move Ms. Williams to Lakeview Nursing Home in New Roads. She died later that day.
Ms. Williams children and grandchildren (“plaintiffs”) filed an action alleging that PCGH failed to properly provided oxygen for their mother as she waited in the hallway, was removed from the hospital, and was transported to the nursing home. They claim that Ms. William’s death resulted from negligence, not medical malpractice, and as such the case did not need to be submitted to a Review Panel, that specializes in the field of medicine, prior to going to court. PCGH disagreed and filed a prematurity exception claiming the allegations involved medical malpractice and must be submitted to a the review panel under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act (“MMA”) La. R.S. 40:1299.41et seq. After a hearing, the trial court maintained PCGH’s exception and dismissed the plaintiffs’ suit upon finding the review panel must first be consulted.
On appeal, the court considered whether the hospital’s inability to properly evacuate a patient and failure to provide oxygen to a patient, fell under the MMA. Under Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 926 (A)(1), the purpose of the objection of prematurity is to slow the progress of an action, but not defeat it. A premature suit is one that has been brought before the court of law before consulting the needed steps before hand. The objection is usually used when the applicable law or contract has provided a procedure for someone to seek relief before resorting to judicial action. Under the MMA, medical malpractice claims against qualified health care providers must go to a Medical Review Panel for consideration before any action is taken in a court of law. The exception of prematurity is the procedural mechanism a health care provider can invoke when a medical malpractice claim is not first submitted to a review panel. Here the burden of proving prematurity is on the hospital, PCGH–they must show that the allegations fall under the MMA.
Only torts that occurred with the field of malpractice in the medical field are covered by the MMA. In addition, the Louisiana Supreme Court has held that any ambiguity as to whether the MMA applies should be resolved against finding that the claim is medical malpractice.
The MMA defines “malpractice” very clearly. It encompenses ny unintentional tort, or breach of any possible contract that may have been established, based on service provided by or should have been provided by a professional to a patient, such as untimely services given, mishandling of a patient, etc. . . La.R.S. 40:1299.41 (A)(13).
The Louisiana Supreme Court has set forth six factors to help courts determine whether a claim is medical malpractice:
- It is somehow related to the treatment that was given or caused by a lacking of a professional skill.
- Medical evidence is needed in order to determine if the required standard of care was in fact breached.
- The patient’s condition must be assessed properly.
- There was a physician-patient relationship or the wrong was within the licensed activities of the hospital.
- Without the treatment given, there would be no wrong or injury.
- The wrong was intentional.
In this case, the Court of Appeals concluded that when these factors are applied to the evidence, the proper conclusion is that the claims were in fact under the MMA. As such, the dismissal for prematurity was proper and the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.
If you believe you have a claim against a medical provider it may or may not be a medical malpractice claim. As this case shows, under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act, additional steps must be taken if the nature of the claim indicates that the MMA applies. If these steps are not taken, the claim will fail. A general tort claim, however, does not have the additional statutory requirements. This is just one more reason why the success of your case depends on a bright, experienced attorney, who understands the intricacies of medical malpractice law.