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Tennessee Court of Appeals Decides that Doctor Was Not Entitled to Summary Judgment in Medical Negligence Case – Holmes v. Christ Community Health Services, Inc.

Under Tennessee law, the plaintiff in a negligence lawsuit must prove four elements:  duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. If the negligence action sounds in medical malpractice, the plaintiff is required to provide expert testimony as to the standard of care (duty) element. Purportedly, this is to aid the jury in determining complex issues with which they may not be familiar.

A failure to provide expert testimony usually results in the dismissal of a medical malpractice plaintiff’s claim, except in the most obvious of cases (such as a medical instrument left inside the patient’s body).

Facts of the Case

In the case of Holmes v. Christ Community Health Services, Inc., the plaintiff was a woman who fell and hurt her right shoulder in 2004. Five days after the injury, she sought medical treatment from the defendants, a physician and a community health care company. Without ordering an x-ray, the physician diagnosed the woman’s condition as bursitis and sent her home with a program of exercises. About a month later, the woman went to see an orthopedic surgeon, who ordered a CT scan that revealed a fracture dislocation in the plaintiff’s shoulder. After multiple surgeries, the woman was left with a partial physical impairment.

She filed suit in the Circuit Court for Shelby County, stating a claim for medical malpractice. The defendants moved to exclude the deposition testimony of an expert witness proffered by the injured woman, alleging that the doctor’s opinions were speculative. The trial court agreed and granted the motion, and it later granted summary judgment to the defendants.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the defendants and remanded the case to the trial court. The woman argued that the meaning of her expert’s testimony was clear:  that because of the delay in the treatment of her shoulder, she required a more extensive surgery, which ultimately resulted in an infection and a greater level of impairment. The court agreed, stating that the doctor had “testified unequivocally” that the woman’s shoulder repair would have been less extensive or maybe even unnecessary but for the delayed diagnosis.

With regard to the defendants’ argument that the doctor’s statements were vague, the court opined that any arguable issue of vagueness was “easily resolved” when one read the doctor’s statements comprehensively and in the proper context. Thus, it was an error for the trial court to exclude the doctor’s deposition testimony and to grant summary judgment to the defendants, based on the woman’s resulting lack of an expert’s testimony to support her claim for medical malpractice.

Talk to an East Tennessee Attorney Experienced in Medical Malpractice Representation

To talk about your case with a knowledgeable Knoxville medical malpractice attorney, contact the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., at (865) 524-5657 to schedule a free consultation. Our firm is available to assist your family with a variety of personal injury and wrongful death claims throughout East Tennessee, including medical negligence cases arising in Maryville, Alcoa, Sevierville, Kingston, and Lenoir City.

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