In my law practice as a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I frequently speak with patients who have complaints about the poor care that they received at public hospitals.
There are only limited circumstances in which a patient can sue a public hospital for medical malpractice. Under ancient common-law principles, the government enjoys sovereign immunity from suit. The only way a plaintiff can sue the government is through an exception to sovereign immunity that is defined by statute.
In Texas, the exceptions to sovereign immunity are defined by the Tort Claims Act. When it comes to medical malpractice cases, the most common exception to sovereign immunity is negligence that involves the condition or use of tangible personal property.
Tangible personal property refers to an item that you can touch.
Therefore, there are many types of medical malpractice claims that could be pursued against a private hospital that are not allowed under the Tort Claims Act.
For example, claims against a public hospital for misdiagnosis of the patient’s condition or misinterpreting an MRI or CT scan are barred because they do not involve tangible personal property. On the other hand, if a governmental employee at a public hospital used a scalpel, which is an item of tangible personal property, and cut the wrong body party with it, then there would be a waiver of sovereign immunity.
As you might imagine, one of the immediate focuses of every potential medical malpractice against a governmental hospital or healthcare provider is whether tangible personal property was in the negligent care.
Dallas court of appeals analyzes tangible personal property exception
An October 12, 2017 opinion by the Dallas Court of Appeals sheds light on the outer limits of the tangible personal property exception to Texas sovereign immunity. The case is styled Dallas County Hospital District d/b/a Parkland Health & Hospital System v. Moon, Cause No. 05-17-00358-CV, In the First Court of Appeals of Dallas, on appeal from the 95th District Court of Dallas County, Texas.
The facts of this case are interesting. A woman who is confined to a wheelchair was admitted to Parkland and brought to an examination room. She had to be transferred from her wheelchair to the examination table. The hospital employees removed the arms of the wheelchair and tried to transfer the patient, but dropped her in the process, breaking her ankle.
A medical malpractice lawsuit followed, during which Parkland filed a legal document called a “plea to the jurisdiction,” arguing that the alleged negligence did not involve the condition or use of tangible personal property, so the case was barred by sovereign immunity. The 95th District Court, in Dallas, denied Parkland’s plea to the jurisdiction, and Parkland appealed.
The Dallas Court of Appeals noted that the plaintiff alleged that the Parkland employees were negligent in using the wheelchair and examination table, both of which are items of tangible personal property. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the employees should have used a Hoyer lift and sling, which are integral components of the wheelchair and examination table, considering the patient’s weight and condition.
Parkland argued, on the other hand, that the plaintiff only alleged that the governmental employees failed to use the Hoyer lift and sling, and that non-use of tangible personal property does not trigger the Tort Claims Act exception to sovereign immunity.
The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision against Parkland.
The appellate court opinion discusses some past Texas Supreme Court that found a waiver of sovereign immunity when personal lacked an integral safety component. One case, in 1976, found waiver where the governmental unit failed to provide a knee brace as part of a football uniform to a plaintiff who had experienced a prior knee injury. A 1989 case found waiver when the governmental unit provided swimming gear to an epileptic patient without a life preserver.
The Dallas Court of Appeals also noted that the Texas Supreme Court had more recently, in 2012, limited the “integral safety component” line of cases. In the 2012 case, the court rules that there was not a waiver of sovereign immunity when the City of North Richland Hills failed to retrieve and use an automatic external defibrillator device (AED) to revive someone who had collapsed at a water park.
In short, the integral safety component argument applies where the state act or provided property that is missing an integral safety component.
In the Parkland case, the hospital argued that the Hoyer lift and sling were not components of a wheelchair or examining table, but the patient urged that they were. The Dallas Court of Appeals agreed with Parkland on this point. However, because the patient also argued that the hospital employees were negligent by removing the arms of her wheelchair before performing the transfer, the court ultimately decided that there was waiver of sovereign immunity by Parkland.
Other traps of the Tort Claims Act
The tangible personal property exception is not the only trap of the Texas Tort Claims Act. Indeed, I find a statute to be a veritable minefield of challenges to plaintiffs. People who are seriously injured at a government hospital would be well-advised to hire a lawyer who is experienced in both medical malpractice cases, as well as suing governmental entities.
Notice requirements. Generally speaking, in Texas, the statute of limitations for negligence claims is two years. When it comes to suing the governmental entity, though, there is a much earlier notice deadline that prevents many people from filing their claims in court. Section 101.101 of the Tort Claims Act states that the governmental unit is entitled to receive notice of the claim within six months after the date of the incident. The take-home messages that if you are injured in a public hospital, hire an attorney quickly, to ensure that the governmental entity receives timely notice of your potential claim.
Damages limits. For the State of Texas and cities, the limit on damages is $250,000 for each person and $500,000 for each single occurrence of bodily injury or death. For all other governmental entities, like counties, the limit on damages is $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each single occurrence. It is important to know that these damages limits are different than the so-called tort reform medical malpractice caps, which only apply to non-economic damages. Under the Tort Claims Act, the cap is comprehensive and includes all types of damages, economic and non-economic.
When it comes to medical malpractice and lawsuits against governmental entities, experience matters. The attorneys at Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, are experienced in both types of cases. For free consultation about your potential case, call 281-580-8800.
Robert Painter is an attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas, where he files medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against public and private hospitals, doctors, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers.