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How Tennessee Treats Medical Malpractice Claims Against State Doctors

Medical mistakes can prove costly for patients. Unfortunately, Tennessee law does not treat all victims of medical malpractice equally. When a person is injured due to the negligence of a state employee—such as a doctor working for a public hospital—their case is taken away from the regular courts and given to the Tennessee Claims Commission, a division of the state’s executive branch. There is often confusion surrounding what cases must be heard by the Commission, which in turn can leave medical malpractice victims out of luck.

Notice Triggers Waiver of Patient’s Right to Sue

Here is a recent example. The plaintiff in this case received treatment at a Memphis hospital for an injured leg. The treatment required a surgical procedure that required a bone graft. The plaintiff and his family instructed the surgeons not to take the graft from his right hip, as he previously had another surgery affecting that area. Despite this warning, the surgeons went ahead and took the bone graft from the right hip. This caused a laceration of the plaintiff’s small bowel, and as a result his organs were contaminated, threatening his life. Although the plaintiff survived, he continued to require further hospital care and was “totally disabled,” according to court records.

The plaintiff subsequently sued multiple parties for negligence and medical malpractice. One of the defendants was a physician employed by the University of Tennessee, which is considered a state agency. When the plaintiff’s attorney learned that some of the defendants might be state employees, he notified the Tennessee Division of Claims Administration. The attorney said he did not know if the doctors in question were employed by UT at the time, but “out of an abundance of caution, I am now presenting notice of this claim to you.” The attorney also sent a follow-up notice to the Division after filing the medical malpractice lawsuit on his client’s behalf.

These notices eventually doomed the plaintiff’s lawsuit against this particular doctor. The Tennessee Court of Appeals held in a March 29 decision that once the attorney notified the Division of a possible claim, even if no formal complaint was filed, that triggered an irrevocable waiver of the plaintiff’s right to sue the defendant in court. As the appeals court explained, “Once a claim is filed with the Division of Claims Administration, the Division has the authority to honor or deny it.” After that, “a claimant may pursue his or her claim before the Claims Commission itself.” The regular Tennessee courts accordingly lacked “subject matter jurisdiction” to hear the plaintiff’s complaint.

Get Help from a Tennessee Personal Injury Attorney

It is easy to get confused when it comes to the law governing personal injury claims against state employees. That is why you should always work with an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer who knows how to navigate the system and is up-to-date on recent developments in the law. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette in Clinton today if you need to speak with a medical malpractice attorney right away.

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