Monday, May 4, 2015

Slippery floor at hospital is not a medical condition after all - Texas Supreme Court (Comment on Ross v St Luke's Episcopal Hospital)


In 2013 a panel of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals found itself compelled to rule that injury sustained by a hospital visitor's fall on a slippery floor was a health care liability claim, and that the visitor's lawsuit had to be dismissed because the Plaintiff had not filed an expert report explaining how the wet floor constituted medical malpractice, or rather more specifically, how the wet floor departed from the applicable standard of medical care. 



Why did the panel reach the absurd conclusion that a wet floor is medical malpractice, and therefore required proof of malpractice by expert testimony under the Health Care Liability Act? It did so because it felt duty-bound to follow Texas Supreme Court precedent to the effect that a claim need not constitute a medical malpractice claim to be treated as such for purposes of a lawsuit brought against a health care provider, and therefore required a medical malpractice expert report. 

In the meantime, a doctor who owned cattle that had been allowed to wander onto a rural road causing a collision sought dismissal of the lawsuit that the injured driver brought against him because no medical-export report regarding the cow-car-collision and the applicable standard of care had been filed. The attorney for the doctor, too, was just relying on Texas Supreme Court precedent, and zealously protecting the interests of his client, who happened to be a doctor. Or so the story went. 
  
Finally, last Friday, the Supremes announced that an ordinary negligence claim is not a health care liability claim after all if it does not arise out of provision of healthcare. Therefore, the hospital visitor who slipped and fell was not required to file an expert report. Good grief. Why did it take so long for the Supremes to come to their senses and admit the obvious? Why did they only do so after the roaming-cow med-mal practice case had made the news, and exposed the level of absurdity of which tort reform, both legislative and judicial, had reached? 





But in Fourteenth Court of Appeals got reversed in the process, and told that they -- rather than the Supremes -- had gotten it wrong. 

The irony (if not absurdity): They were just following binding precedent from the Texas Supreme Court. As an intermediate court, they said, they did not have the authority to go against the Supreme Court. They were just following orders. They felt compelled to march in lock-step and become extras in a theater of the absurd. 

Perhaps the roaming cows would not have come home to roost had the underlings on the inferior court been brave enough to say that the emperors had lost their wits and had no clothes. The Supremes would have had to affirm them.

Perhaps the Fourteenth Court of Appeals should have mopped up the slippery-slope mess that med-mal litigation had become thanks to "tort reform", rather than merely griping, and -- in the case of the one justice on the panel who has since made it to the policymaking level and become one of the emperors with stare decisis powers - concur in the absurdity without writing a separate opinion. 


Affirmed and Memorandum Opinion filed March 19, 2013.

In The
Fourteenth Court of Appeals
NO. 14-12-00885-CV

LEZLEA ROSS, Appellant
V.
ST. LUKE'S EPISCOPAL HOSPITAL, Appellee

On Appeal from the 215th District Court
Harris County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. 2010-75291

M E M O R A N D U M     O P I N I O N

Appellant Lezlea Ross appeals from the trial court’s interlocutory order dismissing her suit against appellee St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. The trial court dismissed the suit because Ross failed to file an expert report as required by Section 74.351 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 74.351 (West 2011).

The sole issue on appeal is whether Ross’s claim based on a slip and fall occurring on the Hospital’s premises is a ―health care liability claim (HCLC) to which the expert-report requirement applies. Compelled by stare decisis, we hold that this claim is an HCLC, and we affirm.

BACKGROUND

Ross slipped and fell in the lobby of St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital after visiting a patient.

Ross brought this action against the Hospital and its maintenance and training contractor, Aramark Management Services L.P.

After the Texas Supreme Court decided Texas West Oaks Hospital, LP v. Williams, 371 S.W.3d 171, 179–80 (Tex. 2012), the Hospital filed a motion to dismiss because Ross did not file an expert report explaining how the Hospital had breached a standard of care, or an expert report from a physician demonstrating how said breach caused Ross an injury. The trial court granted the Hospital’s motion, decreed that Ross’s claims against the Hospital were HCLCs subject to Chapter 74, dismissed with prejudice Ross’s claims against the Hospital, and ordered that Ross pay attorneys fees of $1,000. Ross filed a timely notice of appeal from the trial court’s interlocutory order. See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM.CODE ANN. § 51.014(a)(10) (West Supp. 2012).

ANALYSIS

In a single issue, Ross contends the trial court erred by granting theHospital’s motion to dismiss because her slip and fall claim is not an HCLC within the meaning of Chapter 74.

Ross was not a patient at the Hospital; she did not have a physician-patient relationship with any health care provider at the Hospital. She was a visitor, injured in the lobby of the Hospital. Yet, the Texas Supreme Court instructs that these facts are irrelevant for purposes of determining whether Ross brings an HCLC.

The Hospital, a health care provider, is the defendant. The Hospital is a defendant because of the condition of its floors in the lobby, not because of any act or omission related to health care—unless the decision to have polished floors is health care—which the Hospital does not allege here. Yet, the Texas Supreme Court instructs that a connection between the act or omission and health care is
unnecessary for purposes of determining whether Ross brings an HCLC.

Ross likely never imagined that, under the Texas Supreme Court’s construction, the plain language of the Texas Medical Liability Act would swallow her garden-variety slip and fall case. But it has. And, having failed to file an expert report as required by the Act, Ross owes the Hospital $1,000 in mandatory fees.

Ross does not contest that an allegation that the floors are slippery is a ―safety-related claim. Ross does not attempt to remove her claim from the Texas Supreme Court’s construction of the requites of the Act: A claimant (plaintiff), a defendant health care provider, and a harm or loss (safety). Ross argues simply that this court should ignore Williams because to apply it demands that we affirm.
 
Because the result in this case is absurd, Ross urges, this court should resort to TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 311.021(3) (West 2005) (stating that the Legislature is presumed to have intended a ―just and reasonable result), to disregard the TexasSupreme Court decision on point. We are without such authority. See Lubbock Cnty., Tex. v. Trammel’s Lubbock Bail Bonds, 80 S.W.3d 580, 585 (Tex. 2002) (―It is not the function a court of appeals to abrogate or modify established precedent.
That function lies solely with this Court. Generally, the doctrine of stare decisis dictates that once the Supreme Court announces a proposition of law, the decision is considered binding precedent. (citations omitted)). Thus, we must overrule her sole issue.

CONCLUSION

Having overruled Ross’s sole issue on appeal, we affirm the trial court’s order.

/s/ Sharon McCally, Justice

Panel consists of Justices Brown, Christopher, and McCally. (Brown, J., concurring without opinion).

Footnotes:

Ross testified by deposition that a man was buffing the lobby floor.

See Williams, 371 S.W.3d at 188–89 (citing TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 74.001(a)(13) (West Supp. 2012)). ―[A] claim need not involve a patient-physician relationship for it to be an HCLC.2 Id. at 189.3

See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 74.001(a)(2).][3 See Williams, 371 S.W.3d at 186 (allegations pertaining to safety need not be ―directly related to health care‖).

See id. at 184 (holding that ―safety in the context of the Act has the broadest meaning: ―untouched by danger; not exposed to danger; secure from danger, harm or loss‖ (quotations omitted)).

See TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE ANN. § 74.351(b)(1) (the trial court shall enter an order that awards fees and costs). During oral argument, the Hospital withdrew its request for fees on appeal.

FOR FURTHER READING

OUCH! THE EXPANDING DEFINITION OF HEALTH CARE LIABILITY CLAIMS UNDER THE TEXAS MEDICAL LIABILITY ACT AND WHY TEXAS TOOK IT TOO FAR