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Is Giving a Patient Coffee “Health Care” Under Tennessee Medical Malpractice Law?


Personal injury claims involving medical malpractice or nursing home abuse often revolve around what exactly constitutes “health care.” The reason this matters is that “health care liability” lawsuits in Tennessee are subject to different rules than claims for ordinary negligence, such as car accidents or premises liability. Many personal injury claims are summarily dismissed by Knoxville-area courts because of a plaintiff’s technical failure to follow the malpractice rules, even when there’s disagreement over whether a particular injury arose from the provision of health care services.

Court Rejects Estate’s Lawsuit Based on Definition of “Hydration”

Consider this recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The defendant in this case is a hospital. The plaintiff is the estate of a former patient of said hospital, but the alleged personal injury was unrelated to the health care received. The defendant disagreed, and the courts sided with the hospital.

What happened was this: The victim required emergency hip surgery. The surgery itself was apparently successful and proceeded without complications. While the victim was recovering in the intensive care unit, a nurse brought him a cup of hot coffee. The nurse then left the room. According to the lawsuit, the 86-year-old victim–who was on pain medication, hooked up to monitors, and had a visibly unsteady hand–spilled the coffee on himself while attempting to drink it, causing serious burn injuries.

The estate alleged negligence because the nurse should have known the victim was in no physical or mental condition to be left alone with boiling hot coffee. The estate further maintained this did not qualify as a health care liability (malpractice) lawsuit since the negligence was unrelated to the victim’s treatment, i.e. his hip surgery. Consequently, the estate did not follow the necessary pre-lawsuit rules for malpractice cases, such as submitting an affidavit from a medical expert proving the hospital deviated from the medically accepted “standard of care.”

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals said that was a mistake on the estate’s part. While “not all alleged injuries that occur within a health care provider setting necessarily fall within the definition of a health care liability action,” the Court of Appeals observed, this one did. Indeed, Tennessee’s medical malpractice lawsuit includes the provision of “hydration and similar patient services” as part of medical care.

Hydration in this context includes coffee, the appeals court said. The estate argued that coffee is actually a “dehydrating” beverage. The Court called this argument “creative, but spurious,” and opined that even if giving a patient coffee was not technically “hydration,” it still fell within the broader scope of “similar patient services.”

Get Help From a Clinton Personal Injury Attorney

It may seem unjust to deprive the family of a negligence victim relief because of the technical definition of “hydration,” but the law is often unforgiving when it comes to such details. This is why it is important to work with a qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer when considering any kind of malpractice, accident, or negligence lawsuit–especially against a hospital or other well-funded corporate defendant. Call the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, at 866-862-4855 today if you would like to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys to discuss your case.



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