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Trial Court Improperly Dismissed Health Care Liability Action for Lack of Pre-Suit Notice, According to Tennessee Court of Appeals

All personal injury and wrongful death cases have a filing deadline called the “statute of limitations.” Failing to file a claim within this time frame usually means that the plaintiff will be unable to pursue compensation, regardless of the merits of his or her case. Some types of cases, including Knoxville medical malpractice cases, may have additional requirements.

Under the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act, a person who seeks to pursue a legal action for medical negligence must also provide pre-suit notice to the defendant(s) who will be named in the lawsuit. Medical authorization forms are also to be sent to the defendants. Failing to comply with these requirements can result in the dismissal of an otherwise valid claim.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently decided by the Court of Appeals of Tennessee, the plaintiff was the administrator of the estate of a man who died of septic shock and gangrenous cholecystitis in June 2014. Less than a month earlier, he had gone to the emergency room of the defendant hospital and had been diagnosed with dehydration by the defendant doctor. The decedent was sent home, but he returned the next day via ambulance after becoming lethargic and unresponsive. He was then diagnosed with sepsis and cholecystitis, the conditions from which he eventually passed away.

Beginning in early June 2015, the plaintiff began to send pre-suit notices to the hospital and the doctor, as well as nearly 20 other health care providers. In October 2015, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the hospital and the doctor, alleging that they had been negligent in failing to properly diagnose the decedent’s condition when he first presented to the hospital and that this had led to his wrongful death.

The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run and that the plaintiff had failed to comply with the pre-suit notice requirements of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Decision of the Court

The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that the record failed to establish that the decedent had been aware of the alleged diagnosis prior to his death and that the trial court had failed to either apply the appropriate standard regarding the plaintiff’s alleged non-compliance with § 29-26-121(a)(3)(B) of the Act or adequately explain its decision. While the Act does require that a plaintiff sent written notice of a health care liability claim to the defendant(s) at least 60 days prior to filing suit, it is substantial compliance – rather than strict compliance – that is required. Here, there was considerable uncertainty surrounding the facts, and the trial court’s ruling did not explain its ruling on this issue to the satisfaction of the appellate court.

The court of appeals declined to rule on the issue of the plaintiff’s alleged failure to provide a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization along with her pre-suit notice, noting that the trial court had expressly declined to rule on this argument by the defendants.

Contact a Knoxville Wrongful Death Attorney

Losing a family member can be one of life’s most painful and emotionally trying events. Often, the last thing that those left behind feel like doing is talking to a lawyer about the possibility of pursuing fair compensation for their loved one’s wrongful death. Still, it is important to take timely legal action, or else the right to pursue money damages may be forfeited. At the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., we help those who have lost loved ones due to medical malpractice and other types of negligence seek what they are due. For a free consultation about your Knoxville, Maryville, or other east Tennessee wrongful death claim, call us today at 865-524-5657.

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