Medical Malpractice/Healthcare Liability Action – When is a cause of action considered to be based in medical malpractice as opposed to negligence under Tennessee law?

Posted on Sep 2 2013 10:22PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

Analysis:  The Tennessee Court of Appeals in Suzanne Renee Williams-Ali v. Mountain States Health Alliance, 2013 WL 357580, No. E2012-00724-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. January 30, 2013) discussed when a case is a medical malpractice cause of action (now called a “healthcare liability action” under the new statute) as opposed to simply a negligence claim.   Of course, this is of great importance because of the hoops that one must jump through in order to comply with the various pre-suit requirements for a Tennessee medical malpractice case.  This lawsuit concerned a plaintiff who was dropped from a table by the defendant’s employees while she was undergoing myocardial imaging.  She essentially fell off the table and landed on the floor and sustained injuries as a result of the fall. Williams-Ali at 1.  The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant Mountain States Health Alliance under a theory of negligence, not as a medical malpractice action.


As a result, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting the causes of action in this matter were actually medical malpractice as opposed to ordinary negligence and requested dismissal because the plaintiff did not comply with the medical malpractice pre-suit requirements.  Ultimately, the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant and found that the gravamen of the complaint sounded in medical malpractice as opposed to ordinary negligence.  The non-compliance with the pre-suit requirements was therefore fatal to the case.  This case was appealed and the plaintiff asserted that medical training and experience were not necessary to place or secure a patient onto the scan table for the nuclear stress test.  As a result, the argument was that this case should be considered a negligence case, not medical malpractice.


As the Supreme Court has previously held, “cases involving health or medical entities do not automatically fall within the medical malpractice statute.”  Williams-Ali at 4 (quoting Draper v. Westerfield, 181 S.W.3d 283, 290 (Tenn. 2005)).  The court further noted that a recent Tennessee Supreme Court provided a lengthy and well-reasoned opinion discussion of the difference between a medical malpractice claim and an ordinary negligence claim (See Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546, 555-60 (Tenn. 2011)).  In the Estate of French case the Supreme Court discussed these issues and stated as follows:


It is, of course, the responsibility of the courts to ascertain the nature and substance of a claim. The designation given those claims by either the plaintiff or the defendant is not determinative. For example, even though the Administratrix in this case made reference to neither the [medical malpractice statute] nor the term “medical malpractice” in the complaint, the requirements of the [medical malpractice statute] apply if, in fact, the factual basis for the claim sounds in medical malpractice. Nevertheless, a single complaint may be founded upon both ordinary negligence principles and the medical malpractice statute. The [medical malpractice statute] applies only to those alleged acts that bear a substantial relationship to the rendition of medical treatment by a medical professional, or concern medical art or science, training, or expertise. If there are additional acts or omissions alleged that do not bear a substantial relationship to medical treatment, require no specialized skills, or could be assessed by the trier of fact based upon ordinary everyday experiences, then the claims may be made under an ordinary negligence theory.


Estate of French at 557. 


In the Williams-Ali case at issue, the Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and found the cause of action at issue should be considered as a medical malpractice claim.  In fact, the plaintiff was actually in the process of undergoing a nuclear stress test when the injury occurred.  She had also been assessed by a nuclear medicine technologist performing the test and based on that assessment the technologist found she should be placed in a specific position during the course of the test. Williams-Ali at 6.  The defendant also had made a determination that defendant employees should monitor her during the test and should remain within 18 inches of the table on either side during the test. Williams-Ali at 6.  It was only after all of these determinations were made that the plaintiff’s test began and the injury occurred. 


As a result, the court found, “there is no question that Decedent was receiving professional care at the time and that the alleged acts bore a substantial relationship to the rendition of medical treatment by a medical professional, and/or concerned medical art or science, training, or expertise.”  Williams-Ali at 6.  The court further found the assessment and care provided by the defendant went way beyond the type of “basic” or “routine non-medical” care that the Tennessee Supreme Court referred to in the Estate of French decision as falling within the category of ordinary negligence. Williams-Ali at 6.  As a result, this case was properly dismissed by the trial court because the plaintiff failed to comply with the pre-suit notice requirements and the certificate of good faith. Williams-Ali at 7.


This case once again shows how important it is to know the status of Tennessee law on the requirements for any medical malpractice lawsuit.  The change in the law for medical malpractice causes of action several years ago provides specific pre-suit notice requirements under T.C.A. § 29-26-121 and T.C.A. § 29-26-122 and if they are not complied with, the case will almost certainly be dismissed.  Even if a case does not sound like a “medical malpractice” case, some causes of action such as this one pertaining to someone who falls during a medical test can still be considered within the scope of a medical malpractice action in Tennessee


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TAGS: Negligence, Defenses, Tennessee Medical Malpractice/Health Care Liability
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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