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Texas Doctor’s Cow in the Road is Not Medical Malpractice

Last Friday, a state district judge in Texas ruled that an injury sustained by a plaintiff in a car accident involving a retired doctor’s cows in the road did not constitute medical malpractice. The accident occurred when the car the plaintiff was traveling in hit several of the loose cows. The plaintiff claims to have incurred $700,000 in medical costs as a result of the accident, as well as permanent injuries to his arm and neck.

When faced with the claim against the retired doctor, the defendant’s lawyer argued that the claim was really one of medical malpractice. In Texas (as in North Carolina), a medical malpractice claim contains additional requirements to the filing of the claim. A plaintiff in a medical malpractice claim in Texas must file expert reports showing the expected standard of care of health care providers, and the plaintiff injured in the accident with the cows did not file such reports. The cow-owning doctor’s lawyer stated that his argument that the claim is one of medical malpractice was made to prove a point - namely, that Texas’ tort reform has been stretched beyond the original intent of the reform.

The idea that a claim like this one might be argued as medical malpractice seems ludicrous. However, the argument is based on a 2012 case from the Texas Supreme Court which held that a plaintiff is required to file these expert reports even when the claim of the plaintiff has no direct relation to the health care of the plaintiff. In Texas West Oaks Hospital v. Williams, the plaintiff was an employee who worked as a psychiatric technician and professional caregiver at the defendant hospital, which was a private mental health hospital. The plaintiff was injured while supervising a patient with a history of manic outbursts and violent behavior. As a result of his history, the patient was restricted to his unit. However, when the patient became agitated, the plaintiff took him to an outside smoking area in violation of this unit restriction policy. While in the outside smoking area, a physical altercation occurred which left the patient dead and the plaintiff injured.

The plaintiff alleged that the defendant hospital was negligent in failing to properly train and supervise the plaintiff. The defendant argued that this claim was a medical malpractice one in that it involved  “medical care, or health care, or safety or professional or administrative services directly related to health care.” The plaintiff argued that the medical malpractice standards did not apply because a physician-patient relationship did not exist between the plaintiff and the defendant. The Court did not agree.

The Court reasoned that the changes made by the Texas legislature in 2003 expanded the breadth of the medical malpractice legislation. Prior to 2003, the medical malpractice statute limited the definition of a “health care liability claim” to one which arose out of a health care professional’s treatment or provision of “medical care, or health care, safety or professional or administrative services directly related to health care” and proximately resulted in injury to a “patient.” In 2003, the legislature replaced the term “patient” with the term “claimant.” A “claimant” was defined as a “person” seeking damages in a medical malpractice claim. The Court stated that these changes expanded “the breadth of [the medical malpractice statute] beyond the patient population.”

The Court determined that the plaintiff was a “claimant” and then looked at whether the claim alleged a departure from the accepted standards for health care or safety services directly related to health care. Because the claim dealt with health care rendered  “for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient's medical care, treatment, or confinement,” the Court determined that the plaintiff’s claim was a “health care liability claim.”

Reading about this Texas case, we might ask if this result could be reached in North Carolina. Last December, the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a case which dealt with a similar issue. However, the court of appeals determined that the North Carolina medical malpractice statute requires that a physician-patient relationship exist in a medical malpractice claim.

In Wheeless v. Maria Parham Medical Center, Inc., the plaintiff was a doctor who held privileges at the defendant hospital. In 2005 and 2006, the defendant hospital conducted peer reviews of the plaintiff. Allegations were raised during these peer reviews that the plaintiff had violated the hospital’s “disruptive physician policy.” As a result of these allegations, the plaintiff’s privileges were changed from active privileges to consulting staff privileges pursuant to a settlement agreement. However, in 2006 and 2007, the plaintiff alleged that the hospital failed to honor these consulting privileges.

In 2009, the North Carolina Medical Board received an anonymous complaint from “W. Blower” which alleged inappropriate and disruptive behavior from the plaintiff. The complaint referenced incidents that were alleged in the peer reviews of 2005 and 2006. The Medical Board investigated the complaint and ultimately the allegations were dismissed.

The plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant hospital alleging many claims, including those for unfair and deceptive trade practices, malicious prosecution, negligence and medical malpractice.

The North Carolina medical malpractice statute G.S. 90-21.11(2) defines a medical malpractice claim as

a. A civil action for damages for personal injury or death arising out of the furnishing or failure to furnish professional services in the performance of medical, dental, or other health care by a health care provider.

b. A civil action against a hospital, a nursing home licensed under Chapter 131E of the General Statutes, or an adult care home licensed under Chapter 131D of the General Statutes for damages for personal injury or death, when the civil action (i) alleges a breach of administrative or corporate duties to the patient, including, but not limited to, allegations of negligent credentialing or negligent monitoring and supervision and (ii) arises from the same facts or circumstances as a claim under sub-subdivision a. of this subdivision.

In making the determination that a physician-patient relationship is a requirement for a medical malpractice claim, the court noted several prior cases which made statements about the well-settled prerequisite of a physician-patient relationship to an actionable claim of medical malpractice. (Easter v. Lexington Memorial Hospital, Inc. (N.C. S.Ct. 1981); Massengill v. Duke University Medical Center N.C. Ct. App. 1999) Therefore, the court agreed with the trial court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for medical malpractice because there was no physician-patient relationship between the plaintiff and defendant.

If you have been injured as a result of medical malpractice, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman Car Accident & Injury Lawyers (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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