Assault Claim in Health Care Facility

A plaintiff’s claim for assault and battery within a medical facility may not fall under the HCLA, and thus not be subject to its pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith requirements.

In C.D. v. Keystone Continuum, LLC d/b/a Mountain Youth Academy, No. E2016-02528-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 22, 2018), plaintiff, a minor, was a resident of defendant youth residential treatment facility, which the Court described as part mental healthcare facility and part detention center. According to plaintiff, an employee who was a “third shift night guard” was responsible for taking plaintiff to the bathroom so he “could get ready for the day,” and on one particular occasion, the employee and the plaintiff had a disagreement during which the employee eventually “grabbed [plaintiff’s] right shoulder and pushed the back of [his] left shoulder, causing [him] to turn and fall to the ground.” Plaintiff alleged that while he was lying on the ground, the employee “stomped on [his] right foot.” Defendant disputed plaintiff’s description of the employee as a night guard, instead calling him a “mental health associate.”

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that all of plaintiff’s claims were subject to the HCLA and that his failure to provide pre-suit notice and a certificate of good faith were thus fatal to his claim. The trial court agreed, dismissing the mother’s action with prejudice and the minor’s without prejudice (apparently making this distinction solely because he was a minor).

On appeal, the Court noted that plaintiff was making two separate claims—one related to plaintiff being pushed to the ground and stomped on, and one alleging that “defendant negligently failed to supervise or train the employees of [the facility] in order to ensure the safety of the minor residents.” Looking first at the claim of being pushed and stomped, the Court quoted extensively from three recent opinions which found that claims based on alleged actions that took place in a medical facility were not HCLA claims, all of which involved the plaintiff being hit, assaulted or raped. (internal citations omitted). Applying the same logic to this case, the Court stated:

[E]ven if we were to conclude that [employee’s] role was more of a professional ‘mental health associate’ as opposed to a ‘third shift night guard,’ both Lacy opinions teach that this distinction is not dispositive. …We held in Lacy II that ‘it strains credulity to view a willful assault as being related to the provision of health care services.’ That holding is applicable in this case to the plaintiffs’ allegations of assault and battery, based on the respondeat superior doctrine.

Holding that this claim sounded in assault and battery, not within the HCLA, dismissal of the claim was reversed.

Next, the Court analyzed plaintiff’s allegations that defendant had failed to properly train its staff. While it agreed with the trial court that this claim fell within the HCLA, it noted that such a determination “does not automatically trigger all of the statute’s requirements.” Here, plaintiff argued that this claim fell within the common knowledge exception and that a certificate of good faith was therefore not required, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court held:

The allegations essentially state a claim that the defendants failed to provide adequate security or protection for its child residents. The evidence presented in the record suggests that [the facility] is in some ways a mental health treatment facility, and, at the same time, in other ways, a juvenile detention facility. We believe the trier of fact will be able to review and assess the proof of defendant’s measures to provide security for the residents and determine whether they were adequate and appropriate, without the assistance of an expert.

Accordingly, the dismissal of this claim was modified to be without prejudice, as the failure to give pre-suit notice only triggers a dismissal without prejudice.  (Of course, whether the suit can be re-filed or not is a statute of limitations issue.)

As is always the case, when dealing with a potential HCLA claim the best practice is to follow all the requirements, including both pre-suit notice and a certificate of good faith. Cases like this show, however, that there are some instances where a case arising in a medical context will not fall under the HCLA, and that even those claims that do may not always be subject to the certificate of good faith requirement.