Is a claim involving a Florida hospital fall one of negligence – or medical malpractice?
Our West Palm Beach medical malpractice lawyers recognize this as an important distinction because on the one hand, negligence cases have a four-year statute of limitations and a lower proof burden. Most medical malpractice claims, on the other hand, have a two-year statute of limitations and require expert witness testimony at the outset. These elements can make a major difference in whether a claim survives initial hurdles necessary to overcome summary judgment or outright dismissal. Failure at the outset of the case to correctly determine which category the claim falls into can result in its being tossed on procedural grounds before it really gets started, as opposed to being decided on its merits.
That’s precisely what happened in Gorham v. Martin Memorial Health System, a recent case before Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal.
According to court records, the case involves an elderly woman who died of a fall while she was a patient at a hospital in Martin County, FL. Her adult children brought her to the facility because she was ill. When she arrived at the hospital, she brought her walker, a walking frame device that provides additional support to maintain balance or stability while walking. It’s a common mobility device for the elderly. The complaint indicates hospital staffers refused to allow her to use her own walker. On more than one occasion, she and her children told the nursing staff that she needed a walker for mobility purposes. Yet time and again, she was told either that one would be provided or that it would be “taken care of.” One nurse also assured her children that if she tried to get off the bed, an alarm would sound, summoning care staff.
The night after she was first admitted, the patient fell while attempting to get out of bed to use the restroom. Nursing staff contacted her daughter, informing her of the fall and telling them she had suffered a “slight fracture.”
Several weeks later, an orthopedic surgeon discovered the patient had actually sustained three serious fractures to her pelvis. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff died. Her family, as representatives of her estate, filed a subsequent claim alleging the injuries sustained from her fall were a substantial cause of her death.
Pre-Suit Requirements for Florida Medical Malpractice Claims
Florida law – specifically F.S. 766.104(1) – holds that no action should be filed for personal injury or wrongful death arising out of medical negligence unless the plaintiff’s attorney makes a reasonable investigation (circumstances permitting) and determines there is grounds for a good faith belief of negligent treatment.
Beyond that, plaintiffs must provide the court with corroboration of the reasonable grounds by which they’re initiating the lawsuit with submission of a verified, written medical expert opinion from an expert. This individual must be someone who is similarly situated (in terms of education, expertise, and practice) as the defendant, giving them the medical authority to assert the defendant’s actions (or lack thereof) constituted deviation from the standard of care for that practice/specialty/facility.
Meanwhile with general negligence claims, one must only prove the defendant failed to use reasonable care.
Classifying Falls in a Hospital
In the Gorham case, the plaintiff failed to satisfy the pre-suit requirements for a Florida medical malpractice claim. The question before the court was: Is he required to do so?
He argued he should not, as the acts in question did not “arise out of the medical care and treatment for which the decedent was admitted, but out of ordinary negligence.” Yet if compliance with Chapter 766 was required, the case needed to be tossed.
To be classified as a claim for medical negligence, the court noted, the act from which the claim derives must be “directly related” to medical care or services that require the use of professional judgment or skill. In examining whether that applied to this case, justices with the 4th DCA looked back to its 2010 ruling in Indian River Memorial Hospital v. Browne. In that case, an emergency room patient fell off a stretcher, suffering head injuries and ultimately death. The estate sued, alleging he was improperly supervised with an unsecured guardrail, despite being confused and disoriented. The court granted the hospital’s petition to dismiss the case for failure to meet Chapter 766 pre-suit medical negligence claim requirements. At the time, the court reasoned the standard of care for the hospital’s treatment of the patient depended, in part, on his medical condition upon admission to the ER. Questions about the adequacy of the hospital’s fall risk policies also depended on the prevailing professional standard. This, the court held, meant that the issue at hand arose from the rendering (or failure to render) medical care or services.
Later, the Browne case was discussed by the Florida Supreme Court, which acknowledged the issue was something of a gray area. The question of whether these types of cases are matters of ordinary negligence or medical negligence depends on the specific circumstances in which the injury occurred and the allegations made in the complaint.
So for example, if you are a hospital visitor and slip-and-fall in the lobby, that’s pretty clearly going to be a general negligence claim. If you’re a patient who suffers a fall, though, the question gets thornier. Was it a matter of slippery floors – or improper medical care?
Because these cases can be more complicated than they appear at first blush, it’s important that anyone who has sustained injuries in a fall in a healthcare facility – be it a hospital, nursing home, urgent care center, or doctor’s office – consult with an attorney who has ample experience taking on health care defendants.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
Gorham v. Martin Memorial Health System, April 20, 2022, Florida’s 4th District Court of Appeal
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How Will a West Palm Beach Injury Lawyer Evaluate My Case? April 7, 2022, West Palm Beach Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog