Ordinary vs. Medical Negligence – Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc., d/b/a Shands Vista v. Estate of Ashley Lawson

Florida law requires special procedures in medical malpractice cases. Not all injuries caused by a health care provider are necessarily the result of medical malpractice, however. Because of the different procedures required in medical malpractice cases, it is important to determine if a particular case is the result of medical malpractice or ordinary negligence early in the process.

The First District recently considered the distinction in the case of Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc., d/b/a Shands Vista v. Estate of Ashley Lawson. The defendant in this case is a psychiatric hospital. The deceased woman had been a patient in a locked psychiatric unit in the hospital. After having been in the hospital for more than two months, the woman had taken an employee’s keys and badge and escaped. She was struck and killed by a truck on a nearby highway. Her estate later filed suit against the hospital, alleging ordinary negligence. The hospital moved to dismiss on the grounds that the allegations were actually medical negligence and that the plaintiff had filed to comply with the mandatory presuit requirements for medical malpractice cases.

The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, finding that the claim was for ordinary negligence because the complaint alleged the woman was not receiving care or services at the time of the breach. The defendant petitioned for a writ of certiorari.

The complaint specifically stated that it was a claim for ordinary negligence and not medical negligence. The defendant argued that, although the complaint stated it was a claim for ordinary negligence, the facts indicated a medical negligence claim. The plaintiff alleged the defendant had a duty to confine the woman within the locked unit.

The appeals court ultimately agreed with the defendant that the alleged harm had arisen from the defendant’s alleged breach of a duty to keep the woman confined in the hospital, which the court noted was the purpose of the locked unit. The court found that since the alleged breach arose from the hospital’s failure to confine the woman within the locked unit, which was the specific service purportedly required by her condition, the claim was one of medical negligence. Medical malpractice or medical negligence claims are those that arise “out of the rendering of, or the failure to render, medical care or services.” § 766.106(1)(a), Florida Statutes.

The court acknowledged that the plaintiff had alleged the claim was not one of medical negligence, but it found that the plaintiff’s label was not dispositive. The court must decide whether a claim is one in ordinary or medical negligence by applying the law to the specific facts pleaded. In this case, the complaint stated that the woman had been transferred to the locked unit for her own safety.

The court pointed out that, despite the requirement that it liberally construe factual allegations and accept them as true, there is no requirement that it accept internally inconsistent factual claims or legal conclusions. The appeals court also found that the proof required would involve the medical negligence standard of care.

The court also gave several examples of injuries occurring in medical settings that did not implicate the medical standard of care, including a hot drink spilled on a patient, a slip and fall, and a collapsed hospital bed. In these cases, jurors did not have to apply a medical negligence standard but could instead refer to common experience to determine if negligence had occurred, just as they would do if the injury had occurred outside a medical setting.

In this case, however, the claim was specific to the setting of a “locked unit.” The court stated an expert would be necessary to determine if the hospital had appropriately handled security for the woman.

The court decided, en banc, to grant the petition and quash the order denying the motion to dismiss. The three-judge panel was not able to reach a definitive result, so the decision was made en banc. Seven judges concurred, one concurred in part and dissented in part, and five dissented in two separate dissenting opinions. This case is far from clear cut, and the dissent among the judges suggests that another court may find differently under the same facts.

If you have been injured by the negligence of a health care provider, it is important to determine if the injury arose from ordinary or medical negligence. The experienced South Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Anidjar & Levine can advise you on how to best present your claim. Call us at 800-747-3733 to schedule an appointment.

Related Blog Posts:

Pre-Suit Notice in Florida Medical Malpractice Cases Must Include Negligence Allegation – Rell v. McCulla

Pre-Suit Notice Requirement in Florida Medical Malpractice Cases – King v. Baptist Hospital of Miami