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Fourth Circuit Finds Medical Malpractice Certification Required for Failure to Supervise Claim Against Hospital

outside medical buildingThe Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s order dismissing a woman’s lawsuit against the United States for injuries sustained by her father in a North Carolina Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Hospital. The court’s opinion in Littlepaige v. United States held that the plaintiff did not follow the required administrative procedures for obtaining state medical malpractice certification before filing suit. It rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that her claims involved ordinary negligence, not medical malpractice. Maryland also requires claimants to obtain certification from the state before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff’s father, a Korean War veteran, was admitted to a VA hospital in Durham, North Carolina in September 2007, suffering from dementia. He was reportedly placed on a “falls precaution,” meaning that he required particular attention from hospital staff to prevent injuries from falling. He fell out of his bed on September 21, but after an examination, hospital staff concluded that he was not injured. The next day, he fell again, and was not able to stand. Several days later, x-rays performed for an unrelated condition revealed a fractured hip that required corrective surgery.

The plaintiff filed an administrative claim with the VA in 2009 seeking damages for her father’s injuries at the hospital. After the VA denied her claim, she filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the hospital failed “to properly attend to” her father, resulting in his injury, surgery, permanent loss of use of his leg, and ongoing pain and suffering. She also claimed that her father’s injury would not have occurred “with the exercise of due care” by the hospital, a common-law doctrine known as res ipsa loquitur.

The U.S. moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that her claims sounded in medical malpractice and therefore required an expert’s certification that the defendant breached a standard of care. The plaintiff responded by claiming, first, that the certification requirement did not apply because her claims sounded in ordinary negligence, not medical malpractice. She alternatively argued that her claims fell within an exception under state law for claims arising under the res ipsa loquitur doctrine. The district court rejected both arguments and dismissed the case.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s order. It found that the plaintiff’s claims arose from the hospital’s “falls precaution,” and that by claiming that the hospital failed to exercise due care and properly supervise her father, her complaint clearly fell under the state-law definition of medical malpractice. It also found that res ipsa loquitur is a very narrow exception to the medical malpractice certification rule, and that it did not apply in this case.

Maryland law requires medical malpractice claimants to submit a claim to the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office, and to complete an arbitration process prior to filing a lawsuit. The claimant must also produce a certification from a “qualified expert” regarding the prospective defendant’s breach of the applicable standard of care.

Wais, Vogelstein, Forman, Koch & Norman’s medical malpractice attorneys have represented clients in Maryland for over twenty years, helping them recover damages for losses and injuries resulting from the negligence of medical professionals. We are available 24/7 and can visit you in your home or at the hospital. Contact us today online, at (410) 567-0800 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

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