Patient Fall: Medical Malpractice or General Tort?

By Alex Stein

Courts coalesce around the view that patient fall injuries are actionable only as medical malpractice except when the care provider acts with intent or malice. This approach gives providers of medical care all the protections that benefit defendants in medical malpractice cases (compulsory suit-screening panel procedure, merit certificate / affidavit as a prerequisite for filing suit, stringent and short time-bars for filing suits that use both limitations and repose mechanisms, strict same-specialty requirement for expert witnesses, damage caps, and other protections).

The recent decision of the Louisiana Court of Appeals, White v. Glen Retirement System, — So.3d —- (La.App.2d Cir. 2016) 2016 WL 1664502, continues this trend. 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

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

“Medical Malpractice” vs. General Negligence: The Case of Falling Accidents

By Alex Stein

As I wrote previously – see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – whether a tort action sounds in “medical malpractice” as opposed to general negligence, or vice versa, can be crucial. Suits sounding in “medical malpractice” must satisfy special requirements that include shortened limitations periods, statutes of repose, and expert affidavits (or certificates of merit) at filing. In many states, those suits are also subject to special damage caps. Suits sounding in general negligence are free from these constraints. Filing and prosecuting those suits is consequently not as onerous and expensive as filing and prosecuting medical malpractice actions. For that reason, we witness many disputes over this pivotal categorization issue. Continue reading

Merit Affidavits and the Poor

By Alex Stein

Two days ago, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed the dismissal of an indigent plaintiff’s action to void a statute requiring plaintiffs to support malpractice suits against medical professionals by an opinion letter from a similar healthcare provider. The plaintiff claimed that this statute, Conn. General Statutes § 52–190a, is unconstitutional insofar as it applies to indigent plaintiffs who cannot afford paying medical experts’ fees. The plaintiff filed this action against the State of Connecticut, a number of state legislators and courts, and the Connecticut Medical Insurance Company. He asked the court to grant him declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and compensation.

The court dismissed the action due to the presence of the sovereign and legislative immunities and the plaintiff’s failure to show a violation of his constitutional entitlement. The Appellate Court affirmed that decision. Traylor v. Gerratana, — A.3d —-, 2014 WL 839165 (Conn.App. 2014).

In most states, similar merit-affidavit requirements presented no constitutional problems. Arkansas, Oklahoma, and possibly Florida are exceptions. Expert testimony is a must in nearly every medical malpractice case: proof of malpractice and causation is virtually never possible without an expert. Asking plaintiffs to upfront their expenditure on that testimony doesn’t strike me as too onerous.

The merit-affidavit requirement does not worsen the dismal situation of indigent plaintiffs. There is no reason to believe that a plaintiff who cannot hire an expert ahead of trial would somehow become able to do so when his case goes to trial. At both points in time, he will depend on charity and litigation funding. The legal system should eliminate this dependency and the consequent denial of access to justice to the poor. Things are bad enough when the haves come out ahead most of the time. Allowing a malpractitioner to go scot free when the patient he injured is too poor to file a suit will make things much worse.

Unconstitutional Time Bars in Washington

By Alex Stein

Schroeder v. Weighall — P.3d —-, 2014 WL 172665 (Wash. 2014), is the second Washington Supreme Court’s decision that voids the Legislature’s time bar for medical malpractice suits.  The first decision, DeYoung v. Providence Medical Center, 960 P.2d 919 (Wash. 1998), voided an eight-year repose provision for violating the constitutional prohibition on special privileges (Article I, section 12). This statutory provision benefited healthcare providers and their insurers at the expense of injured patients whose cause of action accrued over a long period of time and consequently tolled the statute of limitations.  The Court held that the Legislature had no rational basis for blocking suits filed in connection with more-than-eight-years-old incidents of medical malpractice. The Court based that decision on the finding by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that old medical malpractice incidents account for “less than one percent of all insurance claims nation-wide.” This finding convinced the Court that the “relationship between the goal of alleviating any medical insurance crisis and the class of persons affected by the eight-year statute of repose is too attenuated to survive rational basis scrutiny.”

In Schroeder, the Court used the same constitutional prohibition to void a new statutory provision that eliminated tolling of the statute of limitations for minors in medical malpractice actions. Continue reading

Medical Malpractice Law as a Triumph of Procedure Over Substance

By Alex Stein

When Sir Henry Maine wrote (here, on page 389) that early substantive law was “secreted in the interstices of procedure,” he did not know that he was coining a long-lasting adage. Even less did he anticipate that this adage will aptly describe our today’s system of medical malpractice.

This system normally requires plaintiffs to accompany their suits with an affidavit or certificate of merit from an eligible medical expert. The expert must show that s/he practices medicine in the same field or specialty as the defendant doctor and is familiar with the standards, protocols and procedures followed by physicians working in that field or specialty (in some jurisdictions, the expert only needs to satisfy the familiarity condition). The expert also must identify the malpractice: the defendant’ deviation from one of those standards, protocols or procedures. Finally, the expert must certify that there is a reasonable medical possibility that the defendant’s malpractice has injured the plaintiff or aggravated her condition. When a plaintiff fails to submit an affidavit that satisfies this checklist requirement, the court must dismiss her suit. The checklist requirement thus creates a “safe harbor” for doctors who go by the rules and blocks away unmeritorious suits. For details, see here.

The Supreme Court of Idaho has recently taken the checklist requirement to its extreme. This unfortunate development took place in Hall v. Rocky Mountain Emergency Physicians,— P.3d —-, 2013 WL 4768310 (Idaho 2013). Continue reading

The Merit of Merit Affidavits

By Alex Stein

Similar to many other states, Oklahoma has a statute prescribing that suits alleging medical malpractice must be verified by an affidavit from a qualified medical expert. Suits unaccompanied by a proper affidavit must be stricken out. This statute is part of what I call – and commend – as a procedural tort reform: it allows courts to get rid of unmeritorious suits against doctors and hospitals early in the process. The statute, however, recently became a dead letter after being pronounced unconstitutional by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court for the second time in a row (Wall v. Marouk, — P.3d —-, 2013 WL 2407160 (Okla. 2013)). Evidently, this Court does not view merit affidavits as favorably as I do.  Let’s see why. Continue reading