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Personal Injury Lawsuits Often Turn on Procedural Issues

When it comes to personal injury cases, Tennessee law does not treat all claims the same. Certain cases may be subject to different procedural rules. It is important to understand these differences because they can negatively affect your ability to seek and recover damages against a responsible party.

Distinguishing Negligence from Health Care Liability

In a recent case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a woman injured at a hospital in Kingsport. The court did not address the merit of the plaintiff’s lawsuit. Rather, the appeals judges addressed the trial judge’s decision to dismiss the case on procedural grounds. As it turned out, both parties relied on the wrong statute, and the appeals court in effect determined the plaintiff was entitled to a “do over” on her case.

As noted above, the victim was injured at a hospital. She was not, however, injured while a patient at the hospital. Instead, she was visiting another patient when her foot was caught on a feeding tube, causing her to fall and break her hip. In her subsequent lawsuit, the victim accused hospital staff of “permitting a hazard to remain in place,” i.e., the feeding tube, which directly caused her injuries.

The victim brought her lawsuit under Tennessee’s Health Care Liability Act, a special statute governing medical malpractice claims. As required by that act, the plaintiff notified the hospital of her intention to sue at least 60 days before filing a complaint. The occurred in August 2012. The victim officially filed her lawsuit in December 2012. This was more than a year after the accident occurred in August 2011.

Normally, a personal injury suit alleging ordinary negligence must be filed in a Tennessee court within one year of the accident or incident giving rise to the plaintiff’s claim. However, the Health Care Liability Act extends the one-year deadline by up to 120 days (approximately four months) provided the plaintiff gives the required 60-day pre-lawsuit notice to the defendant. That was the case here.

But there was some confusion between the parties and the trial court as to whether the Health Care Liability Act even applied to the plaintiff’s claim. The Act itself amended an earlier Tennessee law which only applied to medical malpractice claims. In April 2012, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a series of amendments expanding the law—and its 120-day extension of the statute of limitations—to cover all “health care liability actions,” including cases like this one. The problem was, the plaintiff’s claim arose in August 2011, several months before the governor signed those amendments. This forced the Court of Appeals to conclude the plaintiff could not proceed with her case under the Health Care Liability Act.

That said, the plaintiff could proceed with a separate case against the hospital for negligence. Ordinarily, such a claim would be barred, as the plaintiff waited more than one year before filing. But as the Court of Appeals explained, the Health Care Liability Act states a plaintiff who relies on the statute “in good faith” can still receive the 120-day extension. The Court noted there is a “’gray area’ between claims for ordinary and medical negligence, and it has not always been easy to predict how a court will construe a claim.” Given this, in a case like this where both parties honestly and mistakenly relied on the Health Care Liability Act, it was appropriate to afford the plaintiff an extension to pursue her negligence claim.

Need Help With a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Of course, procedural issues like this can still delay resolution of a case by several years. That is why it is important to work with an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer whenever you pursue any type of negligence or health care liability claim. Contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, in Clinton or Knoxville if you need assistance right away.

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