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Pt.'s survivors sue hospital for substandard air filtering system, etc.

CASE ON POINT: Jones v. Christus Health Ark-La-Tex, 2004 WL 1660387 S.W.3d -TX.

ISSUE: In this unusual Texas case, the family of a deceased patient sued a hospital for allegedly negligent treatment of the decedent during her hospital stay of approximately two months. Suit was brought on the grounds that the hospital's air filtering system, without limitation thereto, contributed to the death of the patient. When a trial court ruled that plaintiffs failed to comply with the requirement to file a medical expert report as required under the state law in medical negligence cases, the plaintiffs amended or recast their claim as a 'premises liability' claim. Whether a cause of action is a health care liability claim presents a question of law to be reviewed de novo on appeal. Claims that physicians or health care providers were negligent may not be merely recast as other causes of action to avoid the requirement for the need for affidavit of a medical expert.

CASE PACTS: On February 6, 2003, Phillip Jones and Alma Daffern, individually and on behalf of the estate of Nola Jones, brought suit against Dubuis Hospital of Texarkana and the health care system, which operated it. They alleged that the hospital was negligent in providing a substandard air filtering system in an unclean environment. The plaintiffs never filed an expert's report. The hospital filed a motion to dismiss because of the plaintiffs' failure to file the required report. The Judicial District Court, Bowie County, granted the defendants' motion. The plaintiffs filed an amended petition, which abandoned their earlier claim of negligent health care delivery and recast their claim as a 'premises liability' claim with identical allegations of a substandard air flittering system in an unclean environment and alluding to the patient as an 'invitee' of the hospital. The District Court again granted the hospital's motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs appealed.

COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed the judgment of the lower court. The court held, inter alia, that recasting the plaintiffs pleading after the expiration of 180 days did not operate to nullify the requirement imposed under Texas law to dismiss the plaintiffs' suit because the plaintiffs failed to file an appropriate expert's report. The court held that the trial court was required to dismiss the plaintiffs' suit with prejudice. Accordingly, the court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the plaintiffs' amended complaint.

LEGAL COMMENTARY: When the plaintiffs filed their healthcare liability suit, they had 180 days to file a medical expert's report. No extension was requested or granted. After the lapse of the 180-day period, the plaintiffs had not filed a medical expert's report. The court found that it was significant that plaintiffs did not attempt to amend their complaint during the 180-day period. The court focused on the statutory language, which states, "If a claimant has failed ... to comply with ... [filing of the report of voluntary dismissal within the 180 days], ... the court shall ... enter an order awarding sanctions ... (3) the dismissal of the action of the claimant against the defendant with prejudice ..." The logical question one has after reading this case is that if the plaintiffs had originally cast their complaint as a 'premises liability' claim would the result have different? If the answer is "yes," than the hospital was fortunate that the plaintiffs initially proceeded with their case cast as a 'medical negligence' claim. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the plaintiffs' case. However, claims for medical negligence may not merely be recast as other causes of action to avoid the requirement for medical experts' reports. If, however, a plaintiffs claim is not one for health care liability, or if the trial court dismisses a plaintiffs claim on the erroneous belief that the plaintiff failed to file (or filed an inadequate) medical expert's report, then a court will likely find that the trial court abused its discretion and reverse a judgment of dismissal. In a footnote the court noted that arguably, as the defendant alleged, even the amended petition which alleged a premises defect concerning a substandard air filtering system and unclean rodent-infested environment is also a health care liability subject to the requirement of an expert report. The court concluded, however, that due to its disposition of other issues, it need not address that question. Editor's Note: Hospital administrators, hospital attorneys and all of those responsible for running hospitals right down to those who are responsible for maintaining the air filtration systems, should be aware of the importance of maintaining safe and efficient air circulation systems. This especially so in this day and age when, more than ever before, people at large are sensitive to and more fully appreciate the importance of the air we breathe. All hospitals should ensure that they are in full compliance with all federal, state and local law, rules and regulations as well as in compliance with the highest standards of hospital accrediting organizations.

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 Providence, R.I., 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 Reagan 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, and Who's Who in America.
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Title Annotation:Legal Focus on Hospital Law Issues; patient's family
Author:Tammelleo, A. David
Publication:Hospital Law's Regan Report
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:952
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