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VOL. 125 | NO. 171 | Thursday, September 02, 2010

State Court Rules in MED Immunity Case

By Tom Wilemon

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The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled for the second time that a 2003 law granting The MED protections from lawsuits because of its governmental ownership is not retroactive.

The court this week filed an opinion denying a petition from The Regional Medical Center at Memphis to rehear its prior decision.

The case involves the estate of Joyce Bell, a 27-year-old pregnant woman who suffered a heart attack and whose premature baby was born severely brain-damaged.

The estate sued The MED for malpractice after the 2003 law was passed, but the alleged negligence occurred before the law’s enactment.

The estate contends that the hospital failed to inform Bell, who was pregnant in mid-2002, that an electrocardiogram performed at that time indicated she had an irregular heartbeat.

She suffered the heart attack Dec. 12, 2002.

“While The MED’s liability for the woman’s death and the child’s injuries has not yet been established, the parties and the trial court apparently agree that the cost to provide humane care to Jonathan Bell for the remainder of his life will be considerable,” Justice William C. Koch Jr. wrote in the opinion.

“There is no evidence in this record that either Jonathan Bell or any members of his family have the financial resources to provide this care.”

The hospital asked for a rehearing after the Supreme Court earlier this summer ruled in favor of the Bell Estate.

The issue before the court was whether the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act gave The MED protections from liability.

The act was amended on May 31, 2003, to designate the hospital a governmental entity, an action that occurred about five months after Joyce Bell’s death.

The Bell family filed suit against The MED in Shelby County Circuit Court Dec. 10, 2003.

The trial court ruled that the law protecting The MED applied, which meant there would be limitations on the lawsuit, including a cap on damages.

The estate appealed.

The Supreme Court stepped in after the Court of Appeals declined to consider the case.

In its first opinion, the Supreme Court said granting The Regional Medical Center at Memphis the protections would violate an article of the Tennessee Constitution that guarantees that “no retrospective law, or law impairing the obligations of contracts, shall be made.”

In the petition for a rehearing, The MED asked the court to consider the ramifications for the publicly owned hospital, which is working to emerge from a period of financial instability.

The hospital also contended that it had operated as a government entity even before the 2003 amendment to the law was passed.

However, the court said this argument was not supported by the record and was inconsistent with the position The MED took in trial court.

“The MED also asserts that we should recede from our earlier opinion because of the potential ramifications that the lawsuits brought on behalf of Ms. Bell’s estate and Jonathan Bell might have on its ability to provide vital medical services to residents of West Tennessee, as well as residents of Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri,” Justice William C. Koch wrote.

“In essence, The MED would have us base our interpretation of (the state constitution’s guarantee against retrospective laws) on the idea that ‘the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.’ We decline to engage in this kind of delicate philosophical balancing where the Tennessee Constitution and prior precedent provide a clear resolution of this case.”

The MED declined to comment on the opinion handed down by the court because the case is still in litigation. The Supreme Court has remanded the case back to trial court.

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