Cup of Hot Coffee to Burns Patient

A claim that a patient who burned himself should not have been left alone with a hot cup of coffee was determined to fall under the Tennessee HCLA.

In Youngblood ex rel. Estate of Vaughn v. River Park Hospital, LLC, No. M2016-02311-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2017), an 86-year-old patient had hip surgery at defendant hospital. Either the same day or the day after surgery, a nurse brought the patient a cup of coffee and sat it on his bedside table in his ICU room. The patient then spilled the coffee on himself and was burned.

The patient later died of apparently unrelated causes, and his estate filed this action. Plaintiff’s claim was essentially that the patient “was an 86 year old man; who was in ICU following a major surgery; was on pain medication; had visible tremors in his hand; and had an O2 monitor on his index finder. [Patient] should not have been left alone to manage an extremely hot beverage.” Plaintiff did not give pre-suit notice or file a certificate of good faith with her complaint, as she asserted that this claim was not subject to the HCLA. The trial court dismissed the action, finding that it did fall under the HCLA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In its analysis, the Court pointed out that the current language used in the HCLA to define “health care liability action” and “health care provider” “is conclusive, and it casts a wide net over civil claims that arise within a medical setting. In fact,…it should not be surprising if most claims now arising within a medical setting constitute health care liability actions.” (internal citations and quotations omitted). In Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(b), the definition of “health care provider” includes “staffing, custodial or basic care, positioning, hydration and similar patient services.”

Applying the language of the statute to the current case, the Court reasoned:

[T]he essence of this claim is that the nurse was negligent because she knew, or should have known, that given [patient’s] mental and physical state, including the fact that he was under medication and recovering from a recent major surgery, he ‘should not have been left alone to manage an extremely hot beverage.’ The question is whether the nurse’s actions in bringing a cup of coffee to his hospital room and leaving it on his bedside table were ‘related to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services.’ We believe the trial court correctly answered ‘yes’ to this question. The THCLA broadly defines ‘health care services’ to include…’hydration and similar services.’ In her brief, plaintiff argues that ‘even the statutory express consideration of hydration fails in this instance as coffee is a diuretic—providing the opposite of hydrating care.’ We find this argument creative, but spurious. We doubt that the legislature, on the one hand, intended to include a hydrating beverage within its definition, but, on the other hand, intended to exclude a beverage that can be said to be dehydrating.

Finding that the plaintiff was claiming that defendant’s “employee failed to provide appropriate supervision and monitoring of [defendant] and his cup of dangerously hot coffee,” the Court ruled that the HCLA applied and affirmed dismissal due to the lack of pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith.

As we have seen before, most cases arising in a medical context will be considered HCLA claims. Plaintiffs should plan accordingly and, even when in doubt, follow the statutory requirements contained therein.