In its opinion filed on January 19, 2018, the Court of Appeals of Maryland (“Court”), which is the highest appellate court in Maryland, stated that in order for the Maryland Health Care Malpractice Claims Act (“HCA”) to apply, a plaintiff must allege a breach of a professional duty of care during the rendering of medical care. When applying this test, the Court looks to the factual circumstances and context of a plaintiff’s claims, not merely to the type of claim or the character of the defendant.
The issue before the Court was whether the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and related claims alleged a “medical injury” within the meaning of the Health Care Malpractice Claims Act, Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.), §§ 3-2A-01, et seq. of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (“CJP”). The plaintiffs (husband and wife) had sued a Maryland nursing home for injuries the wife allegedly sustained while a resident. The Court stated that if the plaintiffs alleged a “medical injury” within coverage of the HCA, they were required to file those claims in the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office (“ADR Office”) as a condition precedent to their action in the Circuit Court. If not, the plaintiffs were free to file their claim as a non-medical negligence suit in the Circuit Court.
The plaintiffs alleged two incidents that occurred at the defendant nursing home: (1) while the wife slept, she fell from her bed as a result of the failure to properly secure her mattress to the bed frame; (2) a nurse subsequently used a mechanical lift to raise the wife off the floor, intending to return her smoothly to the bed, but while suspended, but not yet over her bed, the lift released and dropped her again onto the hard surface of the floor.
The plaintiffs’ complaint included six counts entitled: (1) Negligence; (2) Negligence; (3) Negligence Respondeat Superior; (4) Breach of Contract; (5) False Advertising/Consumer Protection; and (6) Loss of Consortium.
Count One related solely to the wife’s initial fall from her bed as she slept, alleging that the defendant nursing home owed her “the duty to exercise reasonable care in providing a bed to her that was safe for ordinary use,” which was breached by the defendant nursing home by “negligently and recklessly failing to properly attach [the wife’s] mattress to the bed frame …” Count Two related solely to the wife’s fall from the mechanical lift as the nurse attempted to return her to the bed, alleging that the defendant nursing home owed the wife “the duty to exercise reasonable care in providing mechanical lifts … that were safe for ordinary use,” which was breached by “negligently and recklessly providing a mechanical lift that malfunctioned …” Count Three, also related only to the wife’s fall from the mechanical lift, alleged that the defendant nursing home had a duty “to exercise reasonable care in returning her to her bed,” alleging that the defendant’s nurse was acting in the scope of employment when the nurse “negligently and recklessly released [the wife] from the mechanical lift …” The plaintiffs also alleged in Counts One, Two, and Three that the wife’s injuries did not result from the defendant nursing home’s rendering or failure to render health care.
The Maryland Court of Appeals stated that determining whether a claim falls under the HCA depends on the factual context in which the tort was allegedly committed, and that for the HCA to apply, a plaintiff must allege a breach of a professional duty of care during the rendering of medical care. The Court stated that because it might not always be apparent that a plaintiff can file in circuit court, the initial filing in the ADR Office tolls the three-year general statute of limitations, and that a trial judge has the discretion, and the capability, to decide whether a complaint sets forth a breach of a professional standard of care such that it must be filed in the ADR Office.
With regard to the plaintiffs’ Count One, the Court stated that it does not require the fact finder to understand any professional standard of care, and that claims merely for ordinary negligence fall beyond the scope of the HCA (an expert medical witness would not be helpful in this case to explain why a mattress would detach itself from a bed frame).
With regard to the plaintiffs’ Count Two, the Court stated that despite the plaintiffs’ attempt to label the claim as ordinary negligence by declaring that the injuries did not result from the defendant nursing home’s rendering of healthcare or failing to render healthcare, the wife’s claims regarding her fall from the mechanical lift require a detailed examination of what can only be described as medical procedures (an examination of medical procedures regarding the proper operation of the lift—and whether the nurse properly followed these procedures—will be necessary to decide the veracity of this claim). Therefore, the plaintiffs’ claims in Count Two of her Complaint should have been filed in the ADR Office.
With regard to Count Three, the Court stated that Count Three can fare no better than Count Two because proof of the employee nurse’s negligence in operating the mechanical lift is a prerequisite to proving a claim for respondeat superior. Therefore, the third count of negligence respondeat superior should have been filed in the ADR Office before filing in the Circuit Court.
With regard to the remaining Counts, the Court stated that while, generally, claims closely related to a claim subject to arbitration under the HCA should also be filed in the ADR Office to avoid piecemeal litigation, because the plaintiffs can no longer maintain their professional negligence claims in the ADR Office because the wife’s injuries occurred in 2011, and the three-year statute of limitations has expired, there is no potential for piecemeal litigation if the plaintiffs were allowed to pursue the remaining claims at the trial court.
The Court concluded: “we hold that Count One of [the plaintiffs’] Complaint did not allege a medical injury within the HCA, while Counts Two and Three did allege a medical injury. Our decision to dismiss [the plaintiffs’] lawsuit as it relates to the medical professional negligence—Counts Two and Three—and only revive the non-medical Counts—One, Four, Five, and Six—presents no danger of piecemeal resolution of her controversy. Her only viable negligence claim, as of our decision today, is for injuries stemming from [the defendant nursing home’s] ordinary negligence in failing to properly secure a mattress to a bed frame.”
Source Shelia Davis et al. v. Frostburg Facility Operations, LLC d/b/a Frostburg Village, No. 12, September Term, 2017.
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