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

On November 30, 2016, The Florida Supreme Court announced the decision to drop a negligence suit filed against a hospital over the death of patient Ashley Lawson.  Lawson was able to escaped from Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinic, Inc.  The Shands psychiatric hospital is located in Gainesville, Florida and is now known as the UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital.

The major legal issue in this case was whether the conduct of the hospital was ordinary negligence or was medical negligence (medical malpractice).  In Florida, if the facts alleged constitute a claim for simple negligence, then there are no pre-suit proceedings required, no medical expert witnesses required, and it is usually much easier and much less expensive to try the case.  However, if the facts stated in the suit are medical negligence allegations, then there are a number of procedural hurdles that a plaintiff must overcome.  Additionally, the case is usually much more expensive and time consuming to try.

Patient Was Mentally Ill.

Ashley Lawson was admitted to the hospital on November 1, 2012, because of a psychiatric illness, impulsive behavior, drug abuse and several suicide attempts, according to reports.  According to her estate’s initial jurisdictional brief, Lawson was transferred to the locked impatient unit at Shands for her own safety.

Lawson Allegedly Freed Herself.

According to reports, an employee’s badge and keys were left unattended, which gave Lawson the opportunity to free herself and escape on January 23, 2013.  Lawson died soon after she had escaped.  She was struck and killed by a tractor trailer on Interstate 75.

A Request To Reconsider The Ruling.

On November 15, 2016, the Florida Supreme Court abandoned its denial of a motion from defendant-appellee Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics, Inc. asking it to reconsider its ruling from September 13, 2016.  The earlier ruling denied a motion for voluntary dismissal filed by the plaintiff, the Estate of Ashley Lawson.  The court’s earlier denials had decided not to dismiss the case by a 4 to 3 split decision, with Chief of Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara J. Pariente, James F.C. Perry and R. Fred Lewis in the majority and Justices Ricky Polston, Charles Canady and Peggy Quince dissenting.

Since the ruling on November 15, 2016, Lawson’s estate had relinquished its right to file a brief on the merits, noting that the parties are “contractually prohibited from further litigation in this matter.”  This language seems to indicate that a settlement had been reached between the parties.  Shands Hospital filed a motion on November 27, 2016, looking for instructions on its due process rights and its counsel’s duty to proceed.  Shands stated:  “Respondent believes it should be entitled to submit a merits brief to this court and present oral argument since, as this court has made apparent through its orders, it views this case as involving an important issue of statewide impact.”

Where Do You Draw The Line?

This case in particular has raised questions on where the line should be drawn between medical negligence and ordinary negligence.  However, in the motion for reconsideration, Shands Hospital stated that there was no certification of a question of great public importance or a certified district conflict made in the lower court’s decision in the case.

Shands Hospital’s motion to dismiss the case had been denied by the trial court.  Shands then appealed the Florida First District Court of Appeal. The three-judge panel on the Court of Appeal was unable to come up with a definitive result, so the entire Court of Appeal decided to review the case and final reached a 8-6 decision to trump the lower court’s denial.

After that, Lawson’s estate brought the case to the Florida Supreme Court, seeking reversal based on its argument that the First District Court of Appeal’s decision allegedly conflicted with two Fifth District Court of Appeal decisions on what constitutes ordinary negligence verus medical malpractice (medical negligence).  The estate asked for an extension to file its initial merits brief, stating that the parties were discussing a settlement. On July 28, 2016, the estate filed a notice for voluntary dismissal because a deal was in place.

The Supreme Court took the position that the settlement notwithstanding, the Supreme Court should move forward with the case.  Court’s will often do this when they expect that the legal question will come up again and again in the future, unless they go ahead and decide it.

Contact Experienced Health Law Attorneys.

The Health Law Firm routinely represents physicians, nurses and other health providers in investigations, regulatory matters, licensing issues, litigation, inspections and audits involving the DEA, Department of Health (DOH) and other law enforcement agencies. Its attorneys include those who are board certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law as well as licensed health professionals who are also attorneys.  We represent medical students, interns, residents, and fellows in disputes with their graduate medical education (GME) programs.  We represent clinical professors and instructors in contract disputes, employment disputes, clinical privileges matters and other disputes with their employers.  We often act as the physician’s personal counsel in medical malpractice litigation.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001 and visit our website at

“Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinic Inc. v. Estate of Ashley Lawson.” FindLaw. (August 28, 2015). Web.

Hale, Nathan. “In Shift, Fla. High Court Drops Hospital Negligence Suit.” Law360. (November 30, 2016). Web.

“Justice Won’t Drop Case In Shands Vista Patients Death.” The Gainesville Sun. (September 16, 2016). Web.

“Court Sides With Hospital In Death of Escaped Patient.” Health News Florida. (August 31, 2015). 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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