Handshake “Assault” May Not Fall Under Health Care Liability Act

Allegations related to a patient being injured by a doctor’s handshake may not fall under the HCLA.

In Lacy v. Meharry General Hospital, No. M2016-01477-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 19, 2017), plaintiff went to defendant doctor for a check up regarding why she was getting short of breath. Upon entering the room, plaintiff alleged that she offered her hand for a handshake and defendant “squeezed [her] fingers too hard,” which she described as “a beating” or “assault.” Plaintiff alleged, in her pro se complaint, that because of this handshake, “her hand is in constant pain and the fingers no longer have any strength.” Plaintiff also asserted that defendant doctor did not properly add her sonogram results to her medical records.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on plaintiff’s noncompliance with the pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith requirements of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act (HCLA). The trial court granted the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed in part.

“[A] health care liability action is defined as any civil action…alleging that a health care provider or providers have caused an injury related to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services to a person, regardless of the theory of liability on which the action is based.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(a)(1). Here, the issue was whether the “described injuries…relate to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services.”

Regarding the allegation that the sonogram results were not properly recorded, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal under the HCLA. The Court held that “any claim describing a doctor’s failure to analyze a diagnostic test result and to properly document the result in a patient’s medical records clearly ‘relates to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services.’”

The handshake claim, on the other hand, was “less clear.” Defendant argued that the “handshake allegation involved ‘basic care’ or ‘similar patient services,’” and counsel for defendant “asserted that handshakes at the outset of an appointment serve a medical purpose, namely to build the patient’s trust.” The Court, however, ruled that drawing all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor, it could not “conclude that [defendant’s] handshake related to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services.” While it acknowledged that additional evidence might bring this claim within the ambit of the HCLA, it reversed dismissal of the handshake claim at this stage of the litigation.

While this claim may not eventually succeed on its merits, it does remind us that even with the broad definitions contained in the HCLA, not all claims arising in a medical setting will be subject to the HCLA. While it’s always safest to treat medical-related claims as HCLA claims, there are opinions that can help a plaintiff argue around the failure to follow the HCLA prerequisites.