Supreme Court Applies Medical Malpractice Law to Handling a Corpse

Should the extensive protections afforded to negligent doctors under Texas' medical malpractice laws apply to a hospital's wrongful handling of a corpse? On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court said "yes."

In 2003, the Texas Legislature passed a law, commonly referred to as "Chapter 74," that rewrote the law of medical malpractice. This was done due to a claim by doctor's that they had to pay too much money for insurance. Chapter 74 provided sweeping substantive and procedural changes to protect hospitals and doctors from bearing responsibility their negligence, or to shift some or all of the costs to their patients.

On Friday, the Court handed down its opinion in Christus Health Gulf Coast v. Carswell. The widow there asserted that the hospital's negligence cost the life of her husband, partly related to the administration of medications. The widow further alleged that, soon after the man's death, the hospital improperly obtained a consent for an autopsy from an affiliate, rather than from the Harris County Medical Examiner. That autopsy was critically important to ascertain facts concerning the patient's death and medications he had been given.

Without the evidence from an independent autopsy, the jury could not find negligence. But, jurors did determine that the hospital improperly handled matters related to the autopsy and awarded damages.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the case. It ruled that the post-mortem events were closely related to medical care, and therefore the medical malpractice laws applies to them. But, to the contrary, the Court also ruled that the events were not closely related enough to medical care that the original pleadings in the case, asserting a claim for malpractice, tolled the statute of limitations. Here, the express pleadings about post-mortem activities were alleged three years after the event, though the petition was filed against the hospital within the two-year statute of limitations. Normally, amended pleadings "relate back" to the time of the filing of the original petition. But, in this case, the Court determined that the pleaded events were not closely related. Finally, the trial judge had imposed sanctions upon the hospital for discovery abuse. The Court affirmed that it should not have to pay the sanctions.

Count this case as a loss for the safety of patients and a win for health care corporations.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of medical malpractice, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or toll free at 1-800-870-9584.

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