Supreme Court Rules against Patients Again

The Texas Supreme Court ruled recently that, in certain circumstances, a defendant who has been sued can blame a health care provider, but the patient cannot. The opinion was issued in Molinet v. Kimbrell, et al., ___ S.W.3d ___ (Tex. 2011).

Texas has a procedural rule that allows a party being sued (“the defendant”) to designate another party as a “responsible third party” and then that party’s alleged fault can be submitted to the jury. To the extent that the jury finds the third party to be at fault, the damages verdict against the defendant is reduced. (For example, if the jury finds that the responsible third party is 40% at fault, then the damages which the defendant would have to pay are reduced by 40%.) To provide some fairness, the law states that if a defendant designates a responsible third party after the statute of limitations would bar a claim against that third party, the person bringing the suit (“the plaintiff”) can add the third party to the suit, even though limitations has expired, if he does so within 60 days after the third party is designated. That way, if the jury finds fault on the third party, the plaintiff can attempt to collect his damages from the third party.

In Molinet, the Court decided that this rule does not apply when the responsible third party that has been designated is a health care provider. So, under the ruling of Molinet, a defendant can designate a health care provider as responsible third party after the two-year statute of limitations has expired, that third party’s fault can be submitted to the jury, but the plaintiff cannot add that third party to the case and collect his damages from that party. Though this creates an “imbalance in the proportionate responsibility framework,” that “has been accomplished by the Legislature.” When interpreting the medical malpractice statute that purportedly caused this result, the Court refused to consider “statements made by a senator during floor debates and published by the unanimous consent in the Senate Journal.”