Injured Texans Win With Seismic Shift in Judicial Opinion

Posted on Sep 02, 2014

Appellate Court Rules In Favor of VB Attorneys' Client

Kenneth with Ms. Williams at her Appellate Court argument
Kenneth and Ms. Williams at the First Court of Appeals for the oral argument in her appeal.

Texas' First Court of Appeals handed down an opinion on August 28, 2014 that gave our client, Ms. Williams, a big victory. It is also a victory for Houston residents.

Many people know that our state laws are incredibly restrictive with regard to medical-malpractice claims. That's not news. It was just over a decade ago when the legislature re-spun the tort reform of the 1970s into Proposition 12. Those constitutional and legislative changes of the 2000s made medical-malpractice lawsuits impractical for injured patients and their lawyers. Because the laws set out to curtail particular risks elevated by lawsuits brought by patients against their doctors, the citizens of Texas had a reasonable expectation that the new law would not affect their civil rights outside of this med-mal arena. 

2012 Supreme Court Decision Drastically Expands Scope of Medical-Malpractice Law

Supreme Court Expands Reach of Med Mal LawsTwo summers ago, in Texas West Oaks v. Williams, the Supreme Court of Texas interpreted the medical-malpractice law in such a way that its harsh and restrictive provisions could now apply to a vast realm of cases that really have nothing to do with medical-malpractice. While not everyone in Texas heard about this, hospitals and insurance companies definitely were aware of the Court's new interpretation. It was a huge victory for them. 

The new interpretation was a shot in the gut for our client, Ms. Williams, and many others who had brought cases against hospitals for negligence based on events that support the allegation that the hospital failed to provide a "safe" place to work. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision in 2012, many defendant hospitals filed motions to dismiss their cases and were successful based on the broader definition of the med-mal law. Perhaps what's more disturbing is that the case didn't just affect hospital workers, but anyone who may be injured at a health care facility or as a result of the negligence of a health care provider, e.g. doctor, dentist, etc.

By the Supreme Court's interpretation, the statutory definition of the term "health care liability claim," includes all claims brought against a physician or health care provider that relate to its departures  from "safety" standards. The court made grammatical decisions about the use of the word "safety" in this context, and decided that the word stood on its own, unmodified by the nearby phrase in the definition: "directly related to health care." The decision implied that any case brought against a health care provider or physician would be subject to the harsh provision of Chapter 74 - the medical-malpractice law.

Injured Texans Suffer Under Supreme Court's Decision

Before the Texas West Oaks decision, it would have seemed that Ms. Williams' case against her employer for her work-related injuries would have no place in the discussion of med-mal litigation in Texas. However, in the aftermath, Ms. Williams' case has everything to do with the discussion of med-mal litigation in Texas. Ms. Williams was a veteran hospital worker who worked for and at Riverside General Hospital since 2003. She suffered two workplace injuries, one in 2009 and one in 2010. Both injuries required medical treatment and time away from work.

Ordinarily, she would have made a claim for workers' compensation, and any hassle that she would have would be limited to dealing with the comp carrier. But Ms. Williams' employer did not provide workers' compensation, so her only option was to sue the hospital to be compensated for her injuries and time away from work, which she did. After she was well into her case, not long before it was set to go to trial, the hospital moved to dismiss her case based on the then-new opinion from the Supreme Court. Her case was dismissed. We chose to appeal it. 

First Court of Appeals Rules in Favor Of VB Attorneys' Client

Kenneth Fenelon Arguing Williams v. Riverside General Hospital
Kenneth arguing Ms. Williams' case to the First Court.

Before August 20, 2014, between the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, only the Fourteenth had considered the Supreme Court's new definition of "safety" within medical-malpractice litigation. Very shortly after the Supreme Court's decision in 2012, the Fourteenth Court interpreted the Supreme Court's ruling to mean that any case brought against a health care provider that deals with a departure from safety standards is a health care liability claim.3

Keep in mind that pretty much every personal injury case filed deals with alleged departures from one safety standard or another. Lawsuits involving death or injury from motor vehicle accidents, workplace injuries, defective products, hazardous exposure to chemicals or other dangers all deal with departures from safety standards.

At the time we filed Ms. Williams' appeal, only one court of appeals in the state of Texas (Texarkana) had interpreted the 2012 Supreme Court ruling favorably for the plaintiff.4 

When I delivered the oral argument to the First Court of Appeals, a few other appellate courts in Texas had already sprouted up opinions that took the Texarkana court's view, allowing that some claims against hospitals, those that are only indirectly related to health care, do not fall within the definition of "health care liability claims." They decided that the indirectly related claims should not be bound to the strict med-mal litigation procedures. (Oddly, shortly before my hearing, the Texarkana court issued another opinion that went in favor of the defendant based largely on the fact that a hospital employee's job duties involved health care.)

Apart from what the law is or may be in other parts of the state, Houston has been decidedly unfavorable to these non-patients filing health care liability claims. All of the six or more cases brought before the Fourteenth Court of Appeals resulted in orders affirming or rendering dismissals of these non-patient negligence cases.5 

But in August of 2014, the law in Houston began to shift in favor of plaintiffs when the First Court of Appeals chose to side with Ms. Williams instead of Riverside General Hospital. In the First Court of Appeals' view, the events that brought about Ms. Williams' injury were not so related to health care that her case should fall under the med-mal law. Therefore, her case should not have been dismissed. On the side of common sense, the First Court of Appeals joins courts in Dallas, Beaumont, and Corpus Christi for the position that injuries that occur in the hospital are not necessarily claims that belong under the medical malpractice law. 

We hope the case brings the state one step closer to taking this position as a whole. The First Court of Appeals' opinion has created a split among the courts, and so it is likely that the Supreme Court will be reexamining the definition of safety in health care liability claims sooner than later. 

1A hospital is entitled to move for a dismissal if you, the plaintiff, do not file an expert report within 120 days of filing your claim. This nuance of Chapter 74 distinguishes it from normal case procedures and was put in place, nominally, so that a doctor backs up your assertion that you've been injured by the doctor you're suing for malpractice. (Those among us who are disabused of such idealistic intentions understand this is a special ante-up penalty imposed to discourage patients from suing their doctors and hospitals.)

2Here are a few other scenarios that would fall into the definition of the health care liability claim:

  • Imagine you're visiting your sick mother at the hospital. Someone's left a used and contaminated hypodermic on the floor of the hallway and you slip on it, breaking your arm. (Fortunately, that's all that happens.) The hospital gives you free medical treatment for two months until the claim you are fully recovered. They will not, however pay for the $14,000 in lost wages from those two months you could not go to work. You subsequently sue the health care provider, but your lawyer believes it is a regular negligence case (since your fall had nothing to do with any treatment or doctor-patient malpractice) and fails to file the expert report within 120 days. The defendant files a motion to dismiss because you have sued a hospital for its failures with respect to ensuring fundamental safety concerns which means you've filed a health care liability claim but haven't filed an expert report within the deadline. Your case has been dismissed.
  • Dr. Smith rear-ends you on his way to deliver a child. Your car is destroyed, you are fine, but your 10-year-old injures his neck, misses three months of school, and incurs $10,000 in medical bills. You try to negotiate with the insurance company on your own, but they won't give you the compensation you need. So you hire an attorney. Your attorney does not practice med-mal law and refers to the defendant by his professional designation of "Doctor" John Smith in the lawsuit. Your lawyer does not file an expert report within 120 days as required under the med-mal law since he thinks it's a car accident case. However, because you're suing a doctor, the defendant can claim it is a health care liability claim and file a motion to dismiss your suit since no expert report was on file.

3The Fourteenth Court of Appeals' very strict application of Texas West Oaks v. Williams may come in part from the fact that the 2012 Supreme Court Decision was a reversal of a case that came from the Fourteenth Court of Appeals.

4The Texarkana case was based partly on the fact that the individual hurt was a maintenance worker whose job was not involved in providing health care, and partly because the Texarkana Court only kind of has to abide by the Supreme Court because half of the city isn't even in Texas. (Tongue firmly implanted in cheek.)

5Whereas one might think there's a silver lining in suffering an injury at a hospital because well... quick access to medical care, right? In Houston for the last two years, that silver lining would have faded because the legal system for compensation for anyone injured on hospital grounds is frankly a bit medieval.