Family Alleging Nursing Home Neglect May Make Ordinary Negligence Claim - Southwell v. Summit View of Farragut
As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I was interested to see a case in which a family was allowed to claim a nursing home was negligent, even though it was not allowed to sue for medical malpractice. In Southwell v. Summit View of Farragut, Robin Southwell sued Summit View for alleged negligence leading to the death of her mother, Claudia Adkins. The district court dismissed the case with prejudice, finding Southwell had not met the requirements of the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act and had failed to state a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on appeal, finding that while dismissal was correct on those counts, Southwell should be permitted to amend her complaint to include allegations of common-law negligence.
Adkins was deaf and blind and suffered from emphysema and cancer when she was transferred to Summit View from the University of Tennessee Medical Center on December 11, 2009. She died on October 6, 2010. The allegations about how Summit View contributed to Adkins's death were not repeated in the opinion, but Southwell filed suit in Tennessee state court about a month and a half after the death, alleging medical malpractice, wrongful death, negligence and a disability-related claim construed as an ADA claim. Because Adkins had lived in Florida prior to her death and Summit View was a Tennessee company, Summit View successfully removed the case to federal court. Summit View's motion to dismiss argued that Southwell failed to provide an expert's affidavit, proper notice or Adkins's birth date in support of the medical malpractice claim, and the district court agreed. It also dismissed the ADA count for failure to state a claim. Both dismissals were with prejudice; the district court closed the case.
Southwell's appeal argued that while the district court may have been correct, it failed to consider her common-law claims. The Sixth Circuit agreed. After ruling that diversity jurisdiction was proper, it found that dismissal of the Tennessee medical malpractice claims was correct. (Southwell did not dispute this.) It also agreed that dismissal of the ADA-construed claim was correct; the ADA does not provide the monetary damages Southwell sought for failure to provide an interpreter. However, it found merit in Southwell's argument that the district court should have addressed her negligence and wrongful death claims. Southwell alleged that Summit View failed to put Adkins in a proper room; failed to properly care for her emphysema and cancer; and failed to keep the supervising doctor informed about her condition. Southwell did not expressly plead these as failures of the non-medical personnel, the Sixth Circuit said, but she should be given a chance to amend her complaint to do so. Thus, it reversed dismissal and remanded to give her that chance.
This case has several aspects that interest me as a Philadelphia injury lawyer. The medical malpractice dismissal is very harsh; other courts have permitted medical malpractice plaintiffs to amend their filings to include previously forgotten documents. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I strongly suspect the Tennessee law requiring dismissal with prejudice was a politically motivated medical malpractice "reform" law. These "reform" laws are often designed to make it harder to sue medical providers, protecting their (and insurance companies') profits but leaving injured people in the lurch. It's also worth noting that Pennsylvania nursing home abuse is not always or even ordinarily medical malpractice. Nursing home employees are not all medical professionals, and many forms of physical abuse or neglect are nonmedical in nature.