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Texas High Court Rules Nursing Home Claim Is Medical Malpractice Under State Law – Omaha Healthcare Center v. Johnson

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I frequently address issues that cross the line between ordinary negligence, like that of a careless driver, and medical negligence. Medical negligence is also called medical malpractice, and it has become a controversial political issue. This in turn has led many states to pass special laws that apply to medical malpractice cases but not other types of negligence. One of those laws formed the basis of the controversy in Omaha Healthcare LLC v. Johnson, a Texas Supreme Court case finding that a nursing home negligence case fell within the purview of the state’s law on health care liability claims. The ruling means Wilma Johnson missed her chance to file an expert report within 120 days of filing suit, and the high court dismissed her case.

Johnson is the sister of Classie Mae Reed, who died at the Omaha Healthcare Center nursing home after being bitten by a brown recluse spider. Johnson sued Omaha for negligently failing to inspect and clean the premises and take pest control measures. Omaha moved to dismiss on the grounds that Johnson’s allegations were health care liability claims (HCLCs) and she failed to file the required expert report; Johnson maintained that her suit was about ordinary negligence. The trial court and the Court of Appeals both sided with Johnson. The appeals court ruled that Johnson’s claim was a safety claim, and that Texas law requires safety claims to be directly connected with health care to quality as HCLCs. Omaha appealed.

On appeal, the Texas Supreme Court reversed both lower courts. Under state law, it said, HCLCs include claims “against a health care provider or physician for … other claimed departure from accepted standards of medical care, or health care, or safety or professional or administrative services directly related to health care[.]” Caselaw and Texas codes agree that meeting patients’ fundamental needs, including effective pest control, is part of the services a nursing home provides. Furthermore, the court said, health care is defined in Texas law as “any act or treatment performed or furnished, or that should have been performed or furnished, by any health care provider for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient’s … confinement.” Johnson pleaded causes of action for failure to take ordinary care, the court said, but “the underlying nature of her claim” was that Omaha did not exercise the ordinary care expected of a nursing home. Thus, it was an HCLC and should have been supported with the required expert report. A dissent in the case said the majority’s interpretation of the statute would cause confusion.

As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I appreciate that the Texas court acknowledged the overlap between nursing home abuse and medical malpractice. The kind of abuse that involves overuse of prescription drugs, for example, could likely be called medical malpractice without any controversy. However, this ruling effectively adds another barrier to filing a claim for victims of nursing home neglect, because it includes more cases as HCLCs than Johnson and the lower courts apparently thought was appropriate. This is disturbing to me as a Philadelphia injury lawyer, because more barriers will undoubtedly discourage patients and their families from pursuing claims. This makes it easier for negligent homes to continue providing shoddy care, secure in their knowledge that they’re unlikely to be held responsible.

Rosenbaum & Associates represents families that lost a loved one or sustained a serious injury due to abuse or neglect at a nursing home in eastern Pennsylvania. For a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us an email.

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