Fraudulent Concealment by Nonfeasance as an Exception to the Statute of Repose

By Alex Stein

As a general rule, malpractice suits against physicians and hospitals must be filed within the repose period that starts running on the day of the alleged malpractice. Expiration of that period kills the plaintiff’s suit regardless of whether she was able to file it on time. Unlike statutes of limitations, this absolute time-bar does not depend on the accrual of the plaintiff’s cause of action nor is it subject to the discovery rule and equitable tolling. Typically, states recognize only one exception to the statute of repose: fraudulent concealment. Under that exception, when a negligent doctor or hospital intentionally gives the aggrieved patient (or her successor) false or misleading information about the treatment, the patient (or her successor) becomes entitled to toll the repose period until she becomes aware of the true facts. Many courts have ruled that this exception was only available to plaintiffs who could establish affirmative misrepresentation on the part of the doctor or the hospital. According to these decisions, fraud capable of tolling the repose period could only be committed by misfeasance, that is, by active conduct rather than by failure to disclose the relevant facts. More recent court decisions, however, obliterate the omission-commission distinction in the context of fraudulent concealment by doctors and hospitals: see, e.g., DeLuna v. Burciaga, 857 N.E.2d 229, 245-46 (Ill. 2006).

A recent decision of Michigan’s Court of Appeals, In re Estate of Doyle, 2016 WL 857204 (Mich.App.2016), continues this trend. Continue reading

Compulsory Arbitration Clause in Nursing Home Agreements: The NAF Saga Continues

By Alex Stein

As I reported a year ago, the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) was a designated arbitrator in thousands of nursing home agreements. When a nursing home resident complained about medical malpractice or other mistreatment, her complaint had to be arbitrated before NAF and according to NAF’s rules. If the resident or her successors were to sue the nursing home in court, the court would have to stay the proceeding and compel arbitration, as mandated by Section 2 of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) that deems written arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable.”

Six and a half years ago, things have changed dramatically. In July 2009, the Minnesota Attorney General filed a complaint against NAF and related entities, accusing them of violations of the Minnesota Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act. The complaint alleged that NAF held itself out to the public as an independent arbitration company, while at the same time working against consumers’ interests and that it “earns revenue when it convinces companies to place mandatory predispute arbitration agreements in their customer agreements and then to appoint the Forum to arbitrate any future disputes.” Shortly thereafter, the parties entered into a consent judgment under which NAF agreed that it would not administer, process, or participate in any consumer arbitration filed on or after July 24, 2009.

Based on caselaw that followed this judgment, I estimated that the judgment effectively annulled the arbitration clause in thousands of agreements between nursing homes and residents. See, e.g., Riley v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 826 N.W.2d 398 (Wis.App. 2012); Estate of Cooper v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Soc., 2013 WL 4526274 (N.M.App. 2013); Miller v. GGNSC Atlanta, 746 S.E.2d 680 (Ga.App. 2013); Sunbridge Retirement Care Associates v. Smith, 757 S.E.2d 157 (Ga.App. 2014).

Against this estimation, the Arkansas Supreme Court has recently ruled that the arbitration clause in nursing home agreements is enforceable conditional on the substitution of NAF by a different arbitrator. The new arbitrator, the Court held, will decide the parties’ dispute by applying the NAF procedural code for arbitration. Courtyard Gardens Health and Rehabilitation, LLC v. Arnold, — S.W.3d —- (Ark. 2016). Continue reading

Malpractice, Apologies and the Statute of Limitations in Federally Qualified Health Centers

By Alex Stein

Two months ago, the Seventh Circuit has delivered another important decision with regard to medical malpractice actions filed against federally qualified health centers. Blanche v. United States, 811 F.3d 953 (7th Cir. 2016). See also Arteaga v. United States, 711 F.3d 828 (7th Cir. 2013), and Sanchez v. United States, 740 F.3d 47 (1st Cir. 2014), discussed here.

Such actions can only be filed in federal courts pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), but patients and – worse – their attorneys are often unaware of this fact. As a result, by the time they properly file a suit, the FTCA’s two-year limitations period expires and the patient’s cause of action against the United States becomes time barred. See 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b). I call this problem “FTCA’s Trap for the Unwary.” To salvage the suit, the patient can petition for equitable tolling, but her chances of being granted equitable tolling are slim (in courts that still interpret the FTCA’s limitations provision as jurisdictional, those chances do not even exist). Continue reading

Can Negligent Providers of Medical Care Use the Patient’s Self-Destructive Behavior to Fend Off Liability?

By Alex Stein

The Colorado Supreme Court recently delivered an important decision on medical malpractice, P.W. v. Children’s Hospital Colorado, — P.3d —- (Colo. 2016), 2016 WL 297287. This decision denied a hospital the comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses that purported to shift to the patient the duty to eliminate or reduce the risk that the hospital was obligated to guard against.

The defendant hospital admitted a known suicidal patient to its secure mental health unit and placed him under high suicide-risk precautions. The hospital’s staff failed to follow those precautions by allowing the patient to be alone in a bathroom for twenty minutes. During these twenty minutes, the patient hanged himself with his scrub pants and suffered a devastating anoxic brain injury. Continue reading

Disciplinary Proceedings Against Experts Testifying in Medical Malpractice Cases

By Alex Stein

Witnesses have a general immunity against private suits in connection with their testimony (Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 345-46 (1983)). Perjury prosecution is their only fear. For expert witnesses testifying about their opinions rather than empirical facts, perjury prosecution is not even a viable prospect. Doctors testifying as experts in malpractice suits filed against their professional peers, however, may face disciplinary proceedings in medical associations to which they affiliate. The consequences of those proceedings for doctors can be quite devastating. They include expulsion and loss of job opportunities. Moreover, a negative finding against a doctor can impeach her as an expert witness in a subsequent court proceeding, which will make lawyers reluctant to retain her as an expert in the first place.

Yet, the only protection that those doctors get from the law is basic due process. All they are entitled to as defendants before their professional disciplinary board is a notice about the complaints or charges and the right to be heard and present evidence. Worse yet, violation of this basic due process right does not entitle the doctor to void the negative disciplinary finding automatically.

The recent Fifth Circuit decision, Barrash v. American Ass’n of Neurological Surgeons, Inc., — F.3d —- (5th Cir. 2016), 2016 WL 374134, is a case in point. Continue reading

Hospitals’ Exposure to Products Liability Suits

By Alex Stein

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut has recently delivered an important decision that opens up new possibilities for suing hospitals and clinics. This decision allowed a patient alleging that hospital employees injected her with a contaminated medication to sue the hospital in products liability. Gallinari v. Kloth, — F.Supp.3d —- (U.S.D.C. D.Conn. 2015), 2015 WL 7758835. Continue reading

Medical Malpractice in an Emergency Room. What Constitutes an “Emergency” Treatment?

By Alex Stein

Georgia’s Supreme Court has recently delivered an important decision interpreting the “emergency room” doctrine: Nguyen v. Southwestern Emergency Physicians, P.C., — S.E.2d —-, 2015 WL 6631964 (Ga. 2015).  Anyone interested in medical malpractice law should know about that decision. Continue reading

Products Liability or Medical Malpractice? The Definition of a “Healthcare Provider”

By Alex Stein

Every defendant in a suit for medically inflicted injuries wants to be a “healthcare provider.” This status entitles the defendant to categorize the suit as “medical malpractice” and become eligible to special litigation advantages, which include shortened limitations and repose periods, dismissal of suits not verified by experts, and statutory caps on damages.

In Verticor, Ltd. v. Wood, — S.W.3d —- 2015 WL 7166024 (Tex.App.–Austin 2015), the manufacturer of Eclipse Shield – a spinal implant for fusion – claimed to be a “healthcare provider” for purposes of the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA). The purpose of this claim was to recharacterize the products liability action filed against Verticor into a “healthcare liability claim” that can proceed to court only upon showing of medical malpractice verified by an expert. To establish this claim, Verticor argued that it provides the Eclipse Shield “for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient’s medical care, treatment, or confinement” under its “device manufacturer” license. This service, explained Verticor, makes it a “healthcare provider.” Continue reading

Fixing the Broken Law of Military Medical Malpractice for Birth-Related Injuries

By Alex Stein and Dov Fox

Bill of Health bloggers Alex Stein and Dov Fox have just filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of U.S. Air Force Major Heather Ortiz and her baby, who were denied legal remedies for obstetric malpractice by military doctors that left the baby with severe brain damage. The case is No. 15-488 Ortiz v. U.S. ex rel. Evans Army Community Hospital. Professors Fox and Stein urge the Court to overturn the Tenth Circuit’s holding that the federal government’s immunity against liability for intramilitary torts extends to wrongful injuries like those sustained by Major Ortiz’s baby. They argue that this holding misinterprets the immunity, misapplies the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), and constitutes no less than unconstitutional sex discrimination. Fox and Stein explain:

When a civilian spouse of a serviceman receives negligent prenatal care from military doctors and delivers an injured baby as a result of that malpractice, there is no question that Feres immunity does not apply and that the baby can sue the United States under the FTCA. When military medical malpractice injures the baby of a servicewoman, this baby should be equally able to obtain redress under the FTCA.  A system that would single out the civilian children of servicewomen for adverse treatment discriminates against women who serve in the armed forces. . . To interpret the FTCA as the Tenth Circuit did permits discrimination between these two classes of similarly situated victims of military malpractice and violates fundamental principles of equal protection.

To download this brief, click here.

Actions for Sexual Assault Incidental to Medical Treatment Placed Outside the Scope of Medical Liability

By Alex Stein

Ex parte Vanderwall, — So.3d —- 2015 WL 5725153 (Ala. 2015), is a new important decision that defined “medical malpractice” to identify suits adjudicated under special defendant-friendly rules. As I explained hereherehereherehereherehere, and in a foundational article on the subject, categorizing a suit as sounding in “medical malpractice”—as opposed to “ordinary negligence,” “assault” or “battery”—determines whether the plaintiff must satisfy rigid limitations and repose provisions, comply with special requirements with regard to expert testimony, face the difficult burden of proving the defendant’s deviation from professional customs, and, in the end, suffice herself with the compensation amount limited by the statutory cap on damages.

In Vanderwall, this categorization determined whether a patient could use past instances of sexual misconduct incidental to medical treatment to prove that the therapist responsible for that misconduct sexually assaulted her as well. Continue reading

Nevada’s $350,000 Cap on Noneconomic Damages Held Constitutional and Applicable Per Incident

By Alex Stein

Bad news for Nevada’s victims of medical malpractice. This state’s Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages as limiting recovery for all kinds of victims and injuries. Tam v. Eighth Jud. Dist. Ct., — P.3d —- , 2015 WL 5771245 (Nev. 2015).  Moreover, the Court held that the cap applies per incident, which encompasses all mistakes that the doctor may have made in delivering a single treatment to a patient and all the victims of those mistakes (such as twins born with birth defects as a result of negligent prenatal care or delivery). For my discussion of the “per incident” and alternative approaches to caps, see here. Continue reading

Understanding “Lost Chances to Recover” (and Looney v. Moore)

By Alex Stein

My colleague, Professor Tony Sebok, drew my attention to an important recent decision, Looney v. Moore, 2015 WL 4773747 (N.Dist.Ala. 2015, by Chief United States District Judge Karon O. Bowdre). This decision adjudicated a textbook lost-chance case that involved the effects of oxygen saturation levels (SpO2) in premature infants with extremely low birth weights (ELBW). For any such infant, high SpO2 levels involved (among other complications) the risk of blindness caused by retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). On the other hand, low levels of SpO2 could lead to life-threatening neurodevelopmental impairments (NDI). The neonatologists’ customary practice was to maintain SpO2 levels in ELBWs between 85% and 95%. The effects of variations within that nationally accepted range were hitherto unknown.

To find out what those effects are, the defendants conducted a clinical trial. They divided the nationally accepted range of SpO2 levels into a high range (90%- 95%) and a low range (85%-90%). Infants whose parents agreed to participate in that trial—all having an extremely low birth weight—were randomly placed in either of the two groups. By making that division, the defendants tracked the infants’ rates of NDI, on one side, and ROP, on the other side.

Continue reading

Medical Publications as Evidence

By Alex Stein

Whether a medical publication – a book or an article – can be used in court as evidence for its truth is determined by the “learned treatise” exception to the hearsay rule. This exception provides that a court can admit into evidence an excerpt from a treatise or periodical when it “is called to the attention of an expert witness on cross-examination or relied on by the expert on direct examination” and when “the publication is established as a reliable authority by the expert’s admission or testimony, by another expert’s testimony, or by judicial notice.”  Federal Rule of Evidence 803(18) and its state equivalents.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has recently narrowed this exception.  Continue reading

“Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?” in the Context of Psychiatric Treatment

By Alex Stein

“Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?” is an issue that will stay on the courts’ agenda for long. See hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

As I explained in these posts and in a foundational article on medical malpractice, categorizing a plaintiff’s action as “medical malpractice” rather than “ordinary negligence” determines whether it must satisfy rigid limitations and repose provisions, comply with special and costly requirements with regard to expert testimony, face the difficult burden of proving the defendant’s deviation from the medical profession’s customary practices and protocols, and suffice itself with the compensation amounts allowed by the statutory caps on damages.

A recent Florida court decision, Shands Teaching Hosp. & Clinics v. Estate of Lawson, — So.3d —- 2015 WL 5057325 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), illustrates the centrality of this issue for suits complaining about a psychiatric hospital’s neglect. Continue reading

Uninsured Practice of Medicine as Actionable Tort

By Alex Stein

A week ago, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has delivered an important decision on whether uninsured practice of medicine is actionable in torts. Jarrell v. Kaul, — A.3d —- 2015 WL 5683722 (N.J. 2015). This decision involved an uninsured anesthesiologist who allegedly provided negligent pain management treatment to a patient. Under New Jersey statute, N.J.S.A. 45:9–19.17; N.J.A.C. 13:35–6.18(b), a physician’s license to practice medicine is only valid when she holds medical-malpractice liability insurance in the requisite amounts. Continue reading

The “Common Knowledge” Exception to the Expert Requirement in Medical Malpractice Actions under FTCA Categorized as “Substantive”

By Alex Stein

All expert requirements for medical malpractice actions (including merit certificates and affidavits) are categorized as “substantive” rather than “procedural” under both Erie (in diversity suits) and the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). See here and here. The Fifth Circuit recently ruled in connection with a medical malpractice suit filed under FTCA that the “common knowledge” exception to the expert testimony requirement is “substantive” as well. Bush v. United States — F.3d —- 2015 WL 5472491 (5th Cir. 2015) (hereinafter: Bush). State law (Virginia law, in Bush) consequently trumps the federal law of evidence and procedure. Continue reading

Malpractice at the Front Desk

By Alex Stein

Georgia’s Court of Appeals recently categorized a clinic’s front-desk person’s failure to communicate a patient’s complaints to the doctors as ordinary negligence rather than medical malpractice. Wong v. Chappell, 773 S.E.2d 496 (Ga.App. 2015).

This categorization has four important implications:

First, it allows an aggrieved patient to file her suit and proceed to trial without obtaining expert testimony and a preliminary affidavit (or certificate of merit) from a qualified physician.

Second, it frees plaintiffs from the stringent limitations and repose rules that apply in medical malpractice actions. Continue reading

The Unintended Effect of Medicare on the Law of Torts

By Alex Stein

If you are familiar with about a thousand medical malpractice decisions and can’t think of an accident that might surprise you, read Stayton v. Delaware Health Corporation, — A.3d —- 2015 WL 3654325 (Del. 2015). Another reason for reading this new decision of the Delaware Supreme Court is that it has delivered an important precedent: the Court decided that the collateral source rule does not cover medical costs written off by Medicare. Continue reading

HIPAA and the Physician-Patient Privilege: Can Doctors Defending Against Medical Malpractice Suit Carry Out Ex Parte Interviews with the Plaintiff’s Treating Physicians?

By Alex Stein

Whether a litigant’s right to conduct informal ex parte interviews with fact witnesses extends to the plaintiffs’ treating physicians, given the confidentiality provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), is a question of considerable practical importance. This question has recently received a positive answer from the Kentucky Supreme Court in Caldwell v. Chauvin, — S.W.3d —-, 2015 WL 3653447, (Ky. 2015), after “percolating through state courts, federal district courts, and academic circles for a decade.” Id. at *5. Continue reading

Reproductive Malpractice and the U.S. Military

Check out the new op-ed at HuffPo by Bill of Health bloggers Dov Fox and Alex Stein on the unfair treatment of American servicewomen (and their children) under the Feres doctrine should they fall victim to medical malpractice during their pregnancy or delivery. Fox and Stein call for SCOTUS to fix the loophole it left open in the 1950 case, or for Congress to “set up a fund for compensating children whose disabilities were caused by substandard care at military medical facilities.”  Take a look at the full post here.