Nurse sued employer & Dr. for assault/false imprisonment by Dr.
ISSUE: We have all heard horror stories about physicians yelling and screaming at nurses. Many nurses have been the victims of such deplorable behavior. However, in this extraordinary Texas case a female nurse was not only yelled at and screamed at by a female physician, but the physician literally prevented her from exiting the room in which the physician's aberrant behavior took place. The good doctor more than once spewed spittle in the nurse's face and literally prevented the nurse from exiting the room by standing, spread-eagle style with arms and legs extended to block the nurse's way to open the door to exit the room. One of the issues with which the courts were confronted was whether the nurse could bring suit against her employer and Dr. Watts, or whether the nurse's only recourse was to file a claim for Worker's Compensation.
CASE FACTS: Cairn Baker, a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN), worked with Dr. Shannon Watts at a clinic maintained by Cook Children's Physician Network (Cook). On June 14, 2004, Nurse Baker attended a meeting in the physicians' private offices at which Dr. Watts was present. During the meeting, Dr. Watts began screaming at Nurse Baker, getting close to her face and yelling at her. Dr. Watts accused the nurse of making an insubordinate statement. Nurse Baker denied doing so, at which point Dr. Watts advanced toward the nurse, shook her finger in the nurse's face, and spewed spittle on the nurse's lace as she yelled at her. Nurse Baker, believing that Dr. Watts was going to strike her, attempted to leave the room. Dr. Watts blocked the door and prevented her from leaving. When the nurse reached for the door handle, Dr. Watts assumed a spread-eagle stance, told the nurse that she could not leave the room, and locked the door. Nurse Banker asked to leave, but Dr. Watts advanced to the point that her shoes were touching Baker's shoes and her crossed arms were bumping Baker's body. Dr. Watts again shook her finger and spewed spittle in Nurse Baker's face as she yelled at her. The nurse asked to speak with one of the other doctors in the room privately, and when she did, Dr. Watts stepped away from her, allowing her to leave the room. Subsequently, Nurse Baker brought suit against Cook and Dr. Watts for false imprisonment and assault. She alleged that Dr. Watts, a vice principal in Cook, was acting in the scope of her employment when she committed the acts. Cook's motion for summary judgment was granted on the grounds that since Nurse Baker was an employee of Cook, her only recourse against Cook was a claim for Workers' Compensation. Nurse Baker appealed.
COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeals of Texas sustained Nurse Baker's appeal on her claims for mental trauma injuries that she allegedly sustained from the assault and false imprisonment. The court held, inter alia, that injuries arising from a deliberate act of assault as well as false imprisonment are not barred by the 'exclusivity' of the Worker's Compensation Act.
LEGAL COMMENTARY: The court invoked case law to decide the nurse's common law claims for the intentional torts of false imprisonment and assault. The court alternatively held that the Act did not expressly exclude coverage for the nurse's claims for injuries resulting from the intentional torts. Accordingly, the court concluded that Nurse Baker's claims were not compensable under the Act, and so too, the Act did not bar her claims against her employer for the intentional torts alleged. Editor's Note: The conduct of Dr. Watts was deplorable. No individual worthy of the title Dr. of Medicine should ever conduct himself or herself in such a manner. Nurses are all too familiar with the all too many physicians who take out their frustrations on nurses. As intolerable as that is, it pales by comparison to the yelling, screaming, and otherwise abhorrent behavior of Dr. Watts. One wonders why no other person attempted to intervene or come to the rescue of Nurse Baker Where were the other Doctors who attended the meeting? What were they doing? Why did they fail to act? Were they fearful that Dr. Watts might turn her wrath against them? The case, as reported by the court, fails to make any reference whatsoever to what, if anything, other doctors who were present at the meeting did. Did anyone try to calm Dr. Watts down by simply attempting to persuade her that her behavior was not only unacceptable and intolerable, but just plain wrong! It is almost inconceivable that everyone in the room failed to even attempt to come to the aid of Nurse Baker. Further, the case, as reported by the court, fails to make any reference to what, if any, action was taken against Dr. Watts, either by her employer or whether her conduct was brought to the attention of the appropriate state agency having responsibility for meting out disciplinary action against physicians who are guilty of action which brings into question their fitness to practice medicine. Would you want Dr. Watts as your physician? Unfortunately, there are other Drs. Watts practicing medicine at the expense of their patients as well as nurses and other health care providers who have the misfortune to work with them. We should do our utmost to root out the Drs. Watts of the world!
A. David Tammelleo JD Editor & Publisher
Meet the Editor & Publisher: A. David Tammelleo, JD, is a nationally recognized authority on health care law. Practicing law for over 40 years, he concentrates in health care law with the Rhode Island firm of A. David Tammelleo & Associates. He has presented seminars on medical, nursing and hospital law throughout the United States. In addition to his writings as Editor of Medical Law's, Nursing Law's & Hospital Law's Regan Reports, his legal articles have been published in the most prestigious health law journals. A prolific writer, his thousands of articles, as well as his achievements as an attorney and lecturer, have won him recognition in Martindale-Hubbell's Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers, Marquis Who's Who in American Law, Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World.