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Wayne J. Guglielmo, MA

July 27, 2020

Hospital Tries to Get Lawsuit for Patient's Death Tossed Out on a Technicality

A Florida appeals court ruled last month that the state's medical malpractice laws do in fact apply in the case of a Brevard County hospital that failed to transfer a seriously ill patient, according to Health News Florida.

The case involves Shannon C. Lawley, who in 2012 was taken to the emergency department of Wuesthoff Medical Center Rockledge, as it was then known. There, an ED doctor determined that she required intensive care. The facility's ICU, however, didn't have an available bed. Admitted to the hospital but not the ICU, Lawley died during her time in the facility.

Following her death, Lawley's estate filed a multiparty lawsuit, which included the hospital and its then owner, Health Management Associates. (The hospital, now known as Rockledge Regional Medical Center, is currently part of the Steward Family Hospital system.)

Among other things, the suit alleged that the hospital's failure to transfer its patient to a facility with an available ICU bed was financially motivated.

The defendants sought to have the suit dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not filed a pre-suit notice, a requirement in Florida in medical malpractice cases. (Under the requirement, a prospective claimant must notify each defendant beforehand of his or her intent to sue.)

But a circuit judge denied the motion, ruling, in effect, that the case was not a medical malpractice suit (that is, it didn't turn on "the improper application of medical services" and the exercise of professional judgment) and that therefore the pre-suit notice requirement didn't apply.

The 3-judge review panel disagreed: The claim being raised does in fact relate directly "to medical care or services, which require the use of professional judgment or skill." For this reason, the panel concluded, the circuit court had erred in its ruling, and thus the pre-suit notice requirement did apply in the case under appeal.

In its ruling, the panel omitted the medical condition that ultimately led to the patient's death.

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