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Fox Farley Willis & Burnette Attorneys At Law
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TN Supreme Court Dismisses Malpractice Case Against Mental Health Facility Over HIPAA Non-Compliance


Tennessee requires victims of medical malpractice to notify a potential defendant of their claims at least 60 days before actually filing a lawsuit. Among other things, this notice must include an authorization for the release of medical records that complies with HIPAA, the federal law governing medical privacy. If the victim does not substantially comply with these requirements, a judge will dismiss a malpractice lawsuit, regardless of its merits.

Justices: Victim’s Parents Did Not “Substantially Comply” with Tennessee Pre-Suit Notice Requirements

A recent decision from the Tennessee Supreme Court, Martin v. Rolling Hills Hospital, LLC, illustrates how these procedural requirements are interpreted harshly against victims and their families. This case began when a 23-year-old woman was admitted to a mental health facility. She reported symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide. Three days later, the died while under the facility’s care.

The deceased woman’s parents and estate (the plaintiffs) subsequently sued the facility for negligence. The lawsuit itself was filed on October 17, 2014. Just over one year earlier, on October 4, 2013, the plaintiffs provided the necessary pre-suit notice to the defendants. This notice, however, did not contain HIPAA-compliant authorizations for the release of the victim’s medical records. The plaintiffs then dismissed their lawsuit and refiled in January 2016.

Under Tennessee law, a plaintiff may refile a lawsuit within one year of voluntarily dismissing their initial complaint. However, the defendants argued this rule did not apply here, because the plaintiff’s first lawsuit was itself not filed before the statute of limitations had expired.

This requires some additional explanation. Normally, you have to file a medical malpractice lawsuit within one year of the injury. In this case, the victim died in June 2013, so the statute of limitations would normally have expired in June 2014. But once the pre-suit notice is filed, this extends the statute of limitations another 120 days (roughly 4 months). The plaintiffs filed their lawsuit within this 120-day extension period.

But as noted above, their notice was defective because it did not comply with HIPAA. The defense argued this rendered the first lawsuit invalid, and by extension the second lawsuit. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The Tennessee Court of Appeals later reversed, finding the plaintiffs had “substantially complied” with the notice requirement, and in any event, there was no evidence that their technical non-compliance “prejudiced” the defendants in any way.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial judge’s original order dismissing the case. The Supreme Court said the defense showed the plaintiffs failed to comply with HIPAA. The burden then shifted to the plaintiffs to establish either “substantial compliance” or “extraordinary cause to excuse their noncompliance.” Since they provided neither, the Supreme Court said dismissal was appropriate.

Speak with a Tennessee Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

Medical malpractice victims and their families often face an enormous legal struggle just to get their medical malpractice cases heard in Tennessee. This is why it is so critical to work with an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer who understands the system. If you need legal advice or representation, contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our personal injury team.


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