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Tennessee Supreme Court issues key decision for healthcare industry

Tennessee Supreme Court Unanimously Holds Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546 (Tenn. 2011) is statutorily abrogated by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101 et seq. (Tennessee Healthcare Liability Act)

Ellithorpe v. Weismark, 2015 Tenn. LEXIS 827 (Tenn. Oct. 8, 2015)

On July 11, 2011, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d 546 (Tenn. 2011) where it was tasked with clarifying the procedure courts and litigants must adhere to when determining whether a claim is one for medical malpractice, thus subject to additional requirements under the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act, or one of ordinary (common law) negligence. In its opinion, the Court “abandoned the broad ‘gravamen of the Complaint’ test… in favor of a ‘a more nuanced approach’ in which the trial court must examine the claims individually to determine whether they sound in ordinary negligence or medical malpractice.” Estate of French v. Stratford House, 333 S.W.3d at 560 (Tenn. 2011). As a result of Estate of French, a plaintiff could, through creative drafting of the Complaint, maintain a medical malpractice case without having to comply with the requirements of the Medical Malpractice Act.

Four months after French was published, the Tennessee Legislature overhauled the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act as part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011. Notably, the new act called the Tennessee Healthcare Liability Act removed all references to medical malpractice and substituted it for healthcare liability and healthcare liability action. Moreover, the statutory scheme defines healthcare liability action as “any civil action, including claims against the state or a political subdivision thereof, alleging that a healthcare provider or providers have caused an injury related to the provisions of, or failure to provide, healthcare services to a person, regardless of the theory of liability upon which the action is based.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(a)(1) (2011). The Act also provides that “[a]ny such civil action or claim is subject to the provisions of this part regardless of any other claims, causes of action, or theories of liability alleged in the Complaint.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(c).

In interpreting this statute, the Supreme Court holds that Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101 clearly establishes a legislative intent that all civil actions alleging that a healthcare provider has caused injury relating to providing or failing to provide healthcare services must comply with the Healthcare Liability Act, regardless of how the Complaint is worded or the nomenclature given to the claims by the plaintiff in the Complaint. In so doing, the Estate of French and its progeny have been statutorily abrogated.

For more information, please contact Sean W. Martin at swmartin@carrallison.com.

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