Previously on this blog, we have discussed the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act (“LMMA”) and its requirement that “all claims against healthcare providers be reviewed or ‘filtered’ through a medical review panel before proceeding to any other court.” A plaintiff who fails to do this is subject to the defendant’s “exception of prematurity,” which is a procedural mechanism by which the defendant can petition the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim until the medical review panel has properly conducted its review. The defendants in the case of Heacock v. Cook attempted to invoke the exception in a case that involved a sexual relationship between a doctor and his patient.
In December of 2005, Margaret Heacock was admitted to the Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center (“Palmetto”) in Rayville for an inpatient substance abuse treatment program. After being discharged in May of 2006, she underwent outpatient treatment which continued through January of 2008. In 2009, Heacock filed two lawsuits against Palmetto and her treating physician, Dr. Douglas Cook. Both suits alleged essentially the same facts: that Dr. Cook “entered into an inappropriate, sexual relationship” with Heacock during the time she was his patient; one suit’s theory of recovery was based on intentional tort, the other on negligence. Dr. Cook and Palmetto filed exceptions of prematurity, seeking to have all claims dismissed in the trial court and instead brought before the medical review panel. After a hearing, the trial court determined that Heacock’s claims sounded primarily in medical malpractice and therefore required a review by the medical panel. Thus, the trial court dismissed Heacock’s suits without prejudice. Heacock appealed, arguing that it was error for the trial court to require the panel’s review given that her allegations gave rise to a general tort claim, and not a medical malpractice claim.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeal noted that the LMMA applies only to “malpractice” as defined by the statute, while other tort liability on the part of a health care provider is governed by general tort law. Further, Louisiana statute provides separate and distinct definitions for “malpractice” and “tort,” the former extending only to unintentional actions. Thus, “by definition, ‘malpractice’ does not include the intentional acts of the health care provider.” Noting that “Dr. Cook took deliberate action as a physician by becoming involved in a sexual relationship with his patient,” the court reasoned that Heacock’s claim of intentional tort against Dr. Cook was not “malpractice” as defined by the LMMA. Instead, “this type of deliberate action, a sexual relationship, has been deemed to be an intentional tort, and, as such, not considered a malpractice claim.” The court, concluding that the trial court erred in granting Dr. Cook’s exception of prematurity for Heacock’s claim of intentional tort, reversed the trial court’s judgment as to the intentional tort action and affirmed the trial court’s judgment as to the negligence claim.
The Heacock case reveals the limits of the LMMA and its requirement for panel review before a case can proceed to trial. Intentional torts, even when committed by a healthcare provider, are outside of the LMMA’s scope. Indeed, only actions in negligence that meet the state’s specific definition of “malpractice” trigger the application of the Act. This is a critical point for a plaintiff who, like Heacock, may have several possible theories of recovery against a defendant medical provider. Any action that can be styled as an intentional tort will avoid the delay of the LMMA’s review process.
If you have been injured due to the actions of a healthcare provider, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.