Ordinary Negligence vs. Health Care Liability; Relying on the 120-Day Statute of Limitations Extension.

A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals case dealt with the distinction between health care liability cases and claims of ordinary negligence. In Coggins v. Holston Valley Medical Center, No. E2014-00594-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 15, 2015), plaintiff filed suit alleging that she tripped over a feeding tube that had been left near a friend’s bed that she was visiting at the defendant medical center. Plaintiff was not a patient at the time of the incident, but was merely visiting her acquaintance there. Before filing suit, plaintiff provided defendant with pre-suit notice under the HCLA. Accordingly, plaintiff relied on the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations provided by the HCLA. The trial court, however, determined that plaintiff’s suit sounded in ordinary negligence, specifically premises liability, and dismissed the case as untimely.

On appeal, the Court’s first task was to determine whether this case fell under the HCLA. Plaintiff’s fall occurred in August 2011. The Tennessee legislature adopted major amendments to the HCLA in 2011, including a definition of “health care liability action,” but that definition did not take effect until October 1, 2011, after plaintiff’s fall. The trial court, then, incorrectly used that definition to examine plaintiff’s case, as that portion of the HCLA was not applicable here. Instead, the Court of Appeals looked to the Supreme Court’s analysis in Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546 (Tenn. 2011), to determine what type of claim plaintiff was asserting here.

Using the common law analysis, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court was correct in finding that plaintiff’s claim was for premises liability, which falls under ordinary negligence. The Court noted that “this is an allegation of negligence that ‘could be assessed by the trier of fact based upon everyday experiences[;]’” that it did not take special skills to know that leaving a tube in the floor could be dangerous; that leaving the feeding tube in the floor and causing a tripping hazard “does not bear a substantial relationship to the rendition of medical treatment, nor does it ‘concern medical art or science, training or expertise[;]’” and that plaintiff was a visitor and not a patient at the facility, as the Supreme Court had called the physician-patient relationship an “essential element” of a medical malpractice claim.

After finding that plaintiff’s claim sounded in ordinary negligence, the Court next examined whether she could rely on Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(e) to still take advantage of the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations. That statute provides that “[i]n the event that a complaint is filed in good faith reliance on the extension of the statute of limitations …granted by this section and it is later determined that the claim is not a health care liability claim, the extension of the statute of limitations and repose granted by this section is still available to the plaintiff.” The Court stated that no appellate decision had previously interpreted this code section and that this section was enacted in recognition that there is a “’gray area’ between claims for ordinary and medical negligence[.]” On one hand, if plaintiff believes his claim is for health care liability he must send pre-suit notice and wait the requisite time to file; failure to do so results in dismissal. On the other hand, if the claim is for ordinary negligence, it must be filed within the original statute of limitations. Thus, mislabeling a claim can be “potentially fatal” to plaintiff’s case.

Here, the Court found that plaintiff acted in good faith when filing under the HCLA. Plaintiff “fully and timely complied” with the HCLA requirements, and the cause of action accrued and was filed at a time when amendments to the HCLA had created “understandable confusion.” The Court found “no indication that [plaintiff] made this election for any improper purpose or motive, or to gain unfair advantage.” Based on these reasons, the Court reversed dismissal of the case and held that plaintiff was entitled to rely on the 120-day extension provided by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(e).

This was the correct result in this case. Section 29-26-121(e) was specifically included in the HCLA for incidents such as this, where a plaintiff mistakenly but in good faith believes he has to file his claim under the HCLA. Here, plaintiff followed all the tedious steps required by the HCLA. The pre-suit notice was sent within the original statute of limitations, so defendant had knowledge of the coming litigation within the one-year time period. Throwing this case out and refusing to hear it on the merits would have led to an unjust, arbitrary result. While it is important for plaintiffs to carefully examine their cases before filing and try to determine whether their claims fall under the HCLA, plaintiffs and attorneys will sometimes make what may look like a mistake in hindsight but was instead an effort to figure out and comply with the complicated HCLA law.. When the analysis was undertaken in good faith, this statutory provision can and should provide a safeguard to prevent a dismissal on purely technical grounds.