By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

On November 15, 2016, The Florida Supreme Court refused to dismiss a lawsuit over the death of an escaped psychiatric hospital patient for the second time. The suit questions the thin line between medical and ordinary negligence, even though the parties settled their dispute several months ago.

The justices offered no explanation when they denied a motion from defendant-appellee Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics Inc. (Shands) asking them to reconsider that ruling. Additionally, the court also maintained the same 4-3 split across both orders.

The Background.

The ongoing case stems from the January 23, 2013, death of Ashley Lawson. She escaped from Shands Psychiatric Hospital in Gainesville, and was struck and killed by a tractor trailer on Interstate 75.

According to the facts from the case that was filed, Lawson was admitted to the hospital on November 1, 2012, with a history of psychiatric illness, drug abuse, impulsive behavior and multiple suicide attempts. She was later transferred to the locked inpatient unit for her own safety, according to her estate’s initial jurisdictional brief.

As a result of a Shands employee allegedly leaving her key and badge unattended, Lawson was able to escape. Her estate, bringing the suit on her behalf, argued that the case was one of ordinary negligence and not a medical malpractice case. A medical malpractice case carries various strict presuit requirements under the Florida Medical Malpractice Act, including a presuit notice and the affidavit of a physician expert, which the estate did not provide.

Denied Motion to Dismiss.

The suit made its way to the state’s highest court as the estate sought reversal of a decision by the First District Court of Appeal to quash a lower court’s order that had denied Shands’ motion to dismiss. According to the estate’s brief, the Court of Appeal reviewed the case on its own, reaching its 8 to 6 decision, after a three-judge panel could not reach a definitive result.

Ashley Lawson’s estate argued the First District Court of Appeal’s decision stood in conflict with the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s decision on what constitutes ordinary negligence versus medical malpractice. This conflict would give the Florida Supreme Court the authority to decide what the law actually states.

In the hospital’s defense, Shands argued that the case is not a high-profile matter of great public interest, and has no effect on the “due process rights of life or liberty for a sizable group of Floridians.”

Negligence is one of the most common claims used against doctors. It is important to familiarize yourself with the repercussions and ways to avoid it from happening to you in the first place. Click here to read one of my prior blogs to learn more.

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Hale, Nathan. “Fla. High Court Says Deal Doesn’t Stop Patient Death Case.” Law360. (November 28, 2016). Web.

Frellick, Marcia. “Florida Court Rules Physician May Be Liable in Suicide.” Medscape. (August 25, 2016). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law is an attorney with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Altamonte Springs, Florida 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620.

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