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False imprisonment claim based on mental health hold at hospital actually fell under HCLA.

Although plaintiff styled his case as a false imprisonment claim based on a two-hour hold in a hospital related to a mental health evaluation, the Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling that the case actually fell within the HCLA and was thus subject to dismissal for failure to provide pre-suit notice and/or a certificate of good faith.

In Weakley v. Franklin Woods Community Hospital, No. E2020-00591-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 22, 2020), plaintiff went to the defendant hospital the day after a car accident seeking medical treatment. According to plaintiff, a “community navigator” at the hospital asked him if he had ever had suicidal thoughts, and he told her that he had experienced such thoughts twenty years earlier. Thereafter, a nurse entered plaintiff’s room and told him that “she was compelled by state law and hospital policy to administer a mental health assessment.” When she asked plaintiff if he had experienced suicidal thoughts, he said no, but she said she wanted to admit him to the hospital, which he declined. Plaintiff alleged that he was then given insulin and fluids, but when he tried to leave the hospital after treatment, “he was stopped by an unidentified nurse who stated that a hold had been placed on [plaintiff] until he spoke with a psychologist.” A physician’s assistant later came into plaintiff’s room, telling him he had been placed on a hold and was not permitted to leave until he saw a behavioral specialist. Plaintiff averred that he later told this physician’s assistant that he wished to call the police department to report a claim of false imprisonment, and that he was then allowed to leave the hospital.

Plaintiff filed his pro se complaint one week after this incident, asserting a claim of false imprisonment. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claim actually fell under the HCLA and that plaintiff was thus required to give pre-suit notice and file a certificate of good faith. The trial court agreed, dismissing the case with prejudice, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals first analyzed whether this case fell within the HCLA pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(a)(1), noting that “any claims relating to the provision of health care services by health care providers will come under the purview of the HCLA.” Because it was clear that the defendants here all qualified as “health care providers,” the crux of this analysis was “whether the actions giving rise to [plaintiff’s] claim of false imprisonment relate to the provision of health care services and therefore require application of the HCLA.” The Court reasoned:

The [plaintiff] argues that his claim of false imprisonment constitutes a separate tort claim rather than a health care liability action. Respectfully, we disagree. The conduct alleged by the [plaintiff] in his complaint clearly falls within the purview of actions covered by section 29-26-102(a). Although the hold placed on the [plaintiff] for further mental evaluation could potentially be considered unrelated to his presenting complaints of head and neck pain, it still arises from the provision of health care services. … Here, because the facts make clear that the services provided to the [plaintiff] relate to the provision of mental health services, the THCLA applies. Indeed, one court has previously found that health care liability under the THCLA encompasses claims relating to the provision of mental health services.

(internal citation omitted).

Having determined that this claim fell within the HCLA, the Court next looked at whether a certificate of good faith was required here. Plaintiff asserted that his claim did not require medical expert testimony and was thus exempt from the certificate of good faith requirement. When determining whether a claim comes under the common knowledge exception to the certificate of good faith requirement, “there must be a fundamental consideration of whether the conduct at issue involved the exercise of medical judgment or skill.” (internal citation omitted). In this case, the Court found that “the decision to place a hold on the [plaintiff] required some exercise of medical judgment.”  The Court noted that a layperson would not know whether a hold was appropriate in this circumstance, and that “an expert qualified to speak on matters involving medical judgment in terms of placing a hold on patients for mental health assessments in the context of the facts of this case would be required to provide a jury with the appropriate knowledge to make such a determination.” Accordingly, the common knowledge exception did not apply and a certificate of good faith was required in this case.

Finally, plaintiff argued that his case should have been dismissed without prejudice. While failure to provide pre-suit notice does result in dismissal without prejudice, “the same is not true of complaints with additional deficiencies under the THCLA.” (internal citation omitted). Here, plaintiff not only failed to give pre-suit notice, but he also failed to file a certificate of good faith, and thus dismissal with prejudice was the “appropriate remedy.” (internal citation omitted). Dismissal with prejudice was therefore affirmed.

As we have seen many times before, this case is yet another reminder that most cases arising in a medical context will now be considered health care liability cases—including those related to mental health services.

NOTE: This opinion was released 1.5 months after this case was assigned on briefs.

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