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Is a Tennessee Hospital Liable When One Patient Kills Another Patient?

When we are injured due to someone else’s negligence, we reasonably expect the courts to hold the negligent party accountable. Unfortunately, Tennessee law often puts roadblocks in place that deny personal injury victims their day in court. In health care liability and medical malpractice cases, for example, it is not enough to simply allege negligence—the plaintiff must also provide “expert testimony” before a court will even consider the claims.

Standard for Supervising Dangerous Mental Patient Not “Common Knowledge”

The expert testimony prerequisite is even applied in cases where the negligence would appear obvious to a non-expert layperson. Consider a recent case arising from a horrific incident at a Tennessee mental health institution. In August 2013, a patient at the institution attacked and killed another patient.

The fatal attack occurred while the attacker and the victim were standing in line to receive medication. According to a subsequent personal injury lawsuit filed by the victim’s widow against the hospital, the attacker “was a known criminal and known to be extremely violent without provocation.” Despite this, the hospital’s staff allegedly allowed the attacker “to roam about the general population without supervision from a staff member.”

The widow did not include any expert testimony with her complaint. She argued such evidence was unnecessary because the hospital was guilty of “ordinary negligence.” She said it was “common knowledge” that the attacker was a dangerous individual, and therefore the death of her husband was a “foreseeable” event.

The trial court disagreed and dismissed the widow’s lawsuit due to her failure to comply with the expert testimony requirement. In a July 27 opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision. The appeals court said the plaintiff’s lawsuit addressed “matters that are not within the common knowledge of an ordinary person,” specifically the “mental and physical capacities of both the attack patient and the [victim].” Put another way, the hospital’s employees had to exercise professional judgment in deciding “whether and how to restrain and/or supervise a potentially dangerous mental patient.” In order for the widow to challenge this judgment in the context of a personal injury lawsuit, the court said she therefore had to present expert testimony. This was true even though the plaintiff alleged that hospital employees actually ignored physician orders to supervise the attacker more closely. According to the court, “[T]he circumstances still requires an expert to inform the trier of fact of the standard of professional care of these mental patients in a psychiatric hospital setting.”

A Tennessee Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help

If you have been injured or lost a loved one due to medical negligence, it is important you seek assistance from a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer. Do not allow a health care provider to get away with negligence due to a procedural defect in your lawsuit. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with someone about your case right away.

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