With today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court issued opinions in one case. The Court also chose two other cases for future oral argument.
A slip-and-fall in a hospital does not qualify as a “health care liability” claim
A visitor to a hospital slipped and fell in the lobby. When she sued, the hospital moved to dismiss on the ground that she had failed to timely submit an expert report as would be required for a health-care liability claim.
The trial court agreed, dismissing the claim. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding that under TEXAS WEST OAKS HOSPITAL, LP AND TEXAS HOSPITAL HOLDINGS, LLC v. FREDERICK WILLIAMS, No. 10-0603 there need not be a connection between the safety standard in question and the actual provision of health care.
The Texas Supreme Court granted review and, now, reverses, holding that:
for a safety standards-based claim to be an HCLC there must be a substantive nexus between the safety standards allegedly violated and the provision of health care. And that nexus must be more than a "but for” relationship. That is, the fact that Ross, a visitor and not a patient, would not have been injured but for her falling inside the hospital is not a sufficient relationship .... The pivotal issue in a safety standards-based claim is whether the standards on which the claim is based implicate the defendant’s duties as a health care provider, including its duties to provide for patient safety.
The Court rooted this holding in doctrines of statutory construction that look ot the overall structure of the law ("the purpose of the statute, the context of the language at issue"). It noted, in particular, that the reading urged by the hospital would result in a situation where defendants had "a special procedural advantage [in all suits] in the guise of requiring plaintiffs to file expert reports." The Court declined to read the statute as conferring benefits based on the identity of the defendant, rather than the nature of the duty. ("We do not believe the Legislature intended the statute to have such arbitrary results.")
As for how to apply this construction, the Court listed seven "non-exclusive considerations":
- Did the alleged negligence of the defendant occur in the course of the defendant’s performing tasks with the purpose of protecting patients from harm;
- Did the injuries occur in a place where patients might be during the time they were receiving care, so that the obligation of the provider to protect persons who require special, medical care was implicated;
- At the time of the injury was the claimant in the process of seeking or receiving health care;
- At the time of the injury was the claimant providing or assisting in providing health care;
- Is the alleged negligence based on safety standards arising from professional duties owed by the health care provider;
- If an instrumentality was involved in the defendant’s alleged negligence, was it a type used in providing health care; or
- Did the alleged negligence occur in the course of the defendant’s taking action or failing to take action necessary to comply with safety-related requirements set for health care providers by governmental or accrediting agencies?
The Court acknowledged that "the line between a safety standards-based claim that is not a[ health-care liability claim] and one that is ... may not always be clear." On this record, as it turns out, all seven of those considerations favored the plaintiff.
The opinion of the Court does not offer explicit guidance about how lower courts should deal with a situation in which these considerations point in different directions. The concurring opinion (written by Justice Lehrmann and joined by Justice Devine) argues that, when such a situation arises, two of the considerations (the third and fifth) should be viewed as more important than the others because they focus most directly on the relationship between patient and doctor.
Do leave-of-absence policies bar workers compensation retaliation claims?
An injured employee, absent from work, was classified by his employer as being on FMLA leave. According to the employer’s company policy, that type of family and medical leave cannot last longer than 12 weeks. When the employee did not return at the end of that period, the employer immediately fired them.
When the employee sued for retaliatory discharge under Chapter 451 of the workers’ compensation law, the employer argued that its company leave-of-absence policy was uniformly applied and, thus, legally barred a claim for retaliatory discharge. Alternatively, the employer argued that the jury hearing that retaliation claim should have been asked about this defense or given an instruction about the legal effect of its leave-of-absence policy.
The trial court sided with the employee. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the company’s leave-of-absence policy did not create a legal presumption. The Supreme Court has granted the employer’s petition and will consider the issue.
Are loss-of-use or lost-profit damages available when a business vehicle is totaled?
The case involves a tow truck that was rendered a total loss by a vehicle accident. The truck was the sole vehicle used by a small towing company. The towing company reached a settlement with the other driver that would compensate it for the market value of the lost truck, but that driver’s policy limits ($25,000) did not permit recovery for additional damages. The towing company then sued its own insurance carrier, arguing that its uninsured/underinsured motorist protection should also cover the company’s damages from loss-of-use of the truck.
The district court ruled in favor of the towing company, rendering a judgment of $22,500 in additional damages. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that Texas law bars any recovery for this type of consequential loss-of-use damages when a piece of property is damaged beyond repair.
The towing company filed a petition for review, arguing that there is a split in Texas law on this question. The Texas Supreme Court has now granted the petition.