South Carolina Supreme Court Rules that Hospital Negligence Not Always Medical Malpractice

South Carolina Supreme Court Rules that Hospital Negligence Not Always Medical Malpractice

Someone who is injured by the negligence of a staff member at a hospital may have a basis for a lawsuit, for either negligence or for medical malpractice.

The procedural requirements for the two causes of action are different, and a plaintiff must satisfy the right set of requirements to maintain a lawsuit in court.

The Supreme Court of South Carolina recently reversed a ruling by a trial court granting a motion by a defendant hospital to dismiss a plaintiff’s case with prejudice. The hospital had argued in support of its motion to dismiss that the plaintiff failed to satisfy the statutory requirements for filing a medical malpractice claim. The Supreme Court, however, found that the basis for the plaintiff’s claim was not medical malpractice, but negligence by hospital staff, which did not have the statutory requirements for filing.

The train of events that led up to the lawsuit began when a woman started having headaches and dizziness. Her daughter, believing her mother to be having a stroke, called an ambulance, which took her to Wallace Thomson Hospital.

The daughter told the hospital staff about her mother’s symptoms, including her unstable balance and possible stroke symptoms. Despite this information, after the hospital admitted the mother to the emergency room, staff members prevented her family members from accompanying her into the emergency room area and then left the patient unattended.

Before she received any treatment, the patient got up and attempted to use the restroom by herself. She fell and broke her foot.

The patient-plaintiff filed a complaint and an amended complaint against the hospital, claiming that she would not have fractured her foot if the hospital staff had properly performed their duties. She specified that the hospital staff were negligent for failing to keep an eye on her after she had complained of dizziness, headaches, and instability, the reasons she was taken to the hospital in the first place.

The hospital moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint on the basis that her claim against the hospital was for medical malpractice, as defined by South Carolina Code Ann. sections 15-79-110(6) (Supp. 2012), because she was alleging that hospital staff had failed to provide skilled and technical medical treatments.

The practical implication of this characterization of the plaintiff’s claim by the hospital was that for a medical malpractice claim the plaintiff was required to comply with the Notice of Intent (NOI) and expert affidavit requirements in sections 15-79-110(6).

Since the plaintiff had failed to file either the NOI or the expert affidavit, the hospital asked the trial court to dismiss her lawsuit, which it did. The Texas Supreme Court took the case directly from the Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court in its analysis noted that not every action taken by a medical professional in a hospital or doctor’s office is necessarily the practice of medicine. Medical providers are also subject to claims for ordinary negligence.

The key for the court in rendering its decision in favor of the plaintiff was that at the time she fell and fractured her foot, she had not yet begun receiving any medical treatment. In her complaint, she was not claiming that the hospital’s employees had administered negligent medical care, but that they had failed to provide the ordinary care that a lay person would have provided under the circumstances. The plain and simple fact was that when the plaintiff got up by herself and tried to navigate her way to the restroom on her own, she fell and broke her foot. Watching over a person who is dizzy and can’t maintain her balance does not require medical skills, but only the ordinary care of a lay person.

Therefore, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the plaintiff’s claim did not allege medical malpractice, and she was not required to satisfy the statutory requirements to file a NOI and an expert affidavit. The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal and remanded plaintiff’s case to the trial court.

If you or a family member has been injured in a hospital or doctor’s office, you may have a cause of action for negligence or medical malpractice. Contact the Tatum Law Firm today at (704) 307-4350 for a free consultation.