New Jersey Appeals Court Says Plaintiffs Don’t Need Presuit Affidavits to Sue LPNs in Medical Malpractice Cases
By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
In a possibly precedent-setting case, on November 9, 2022, for the first time, an appeals court in New Jersey ruled that plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases do not need an affidavit of merit to file claims against a licensed practical nurse (LPNs). The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, said that an LPN is not included in the “licensed person” definition under the state’s affidavit of merit statute.
Additionally, the court’s ruling stated that an LPN could not use the absence of such an affidavit to avoid a medical malpractice suit. In this case, the malpractice suit was brought by a widower who says his wife died as a result of bad medical advice given by her LPN.
Allegations Made in the Lawsuit.
The plaintiff claimed that the defendant (an LPN) responded to his complaints about his wife being in pain and unable to eat following her colon surgery by blaming the issue on “post-operative gas.” After allegedly ignoring numerous messages he left regarding her condition, the LPN allegedly told the husband to give his wife, Pepto Bismol. The following day, his wife died, according to the lawsuit.
In July 2020, the plaintiff filed a medical malpractice claim on behalf of himself as the administrator of his wife’s estate. The lawsuit originally named the doctor, Virtua Surgical Group, and an unknown nurse. Following discovery, the plaintiff dismissed the claims against the doctor and Virtua Surgical Group, and proceeded against only the LPN. According to the opinion, the plaintiff alleged that the LPN was negligent in providing medical advice and in failing to consult with her doctor.
You can view the court’s opinion in full here on our website.
Is a Licensed Practical Nurse a “Licensed Person” Covered by the AOM Statute?
In New Jersey professional negligence cases, plaintiffs must file an “affidavit of merit,” or AOM, signed by a licensed medical professional, before they are allowed to sue those [professionals for malpractice. This results from a tort reform package passed by the state government in 1995.
Why there hasn’t been a case similar to this one, or lobbying by LPNs to sew up the legal “loophole” before now, is unclear.
Like many similar state statutes passed around the same time, the New Jersey statute was designed to balance between reducing frivolous lawsuits and permitting injured plaintiffs recovery for meritorious claims. According to the court’s decision, a plaintiff claiming “malpractice or negligence by a licensed person” must file an “affidavit of an appropriate licensed person” who can attest that there is a “reasonable probability” that defendant’s conduct “fell outside acceptable professional or occupational standards or treatment practices.”
The defendant in this case argued that since the nursing portion of the statute defines “the practice of nursing” for “a registered professional nurse,” the Legislature intended for licensed practical nurses to be included. However, the New Jersey appeals court held that the tort reform package would not protect the LPN from the lawsuit because she was a different kind of nurse from a registered nurse.
In his written opinion for the court, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert J. Gilson considered whether a licensed practical nurse is a “licensed person” covered under the AOM statute. “The AOM statute expressly uses the term ‘a registered professional nurse.’ Yet, nowhere in that definition of a registered professional nurse is there a reference to a licensed practical nurse,” he added.
Gilson stated in the court’s opinion that the Legislature was aware that it had separately defined the two types of nurses. In other words, if it had wanted to protect LPNs at the same time as it was protecting RNs, it could have done so. Therefore, the plaintiff was allowed to pursue claims without an AOM. However, the plaintiff would still be required to prove the defendant’s negligence to succeed.
Click here to view the opinion in full.
Click here to read one of our related blogs about legal issues LPNs often face.
Who Is a “Professional” and What Is “Malpractice”?
“Malpractice” is usually defined as the negligence of or the breach of a professional duty by a professional. In other words, professional negligence.
How do we determine who is a “professional” then? The simple rule of thumb is that anyone who is required to have a license in order to perform his or her occupation is a professional. Thus, under this definition, we have attorneys, dentists, accountants, architects, engineers, funeral directors, teachers, all are required to have licenses, depending upon what state they are in. Thus there can be accounting malpractice, engineering malpractice, architectural malpractice and, yes, even legal malpractice. Under this definition, a licensed practical nurse would be considered a professional who could commit nursing malpractice.
However, if the wording of law limits coverage to only certain listed professions, and other professions are left out, then only the ones specifically listed will be covered by its application.
Is the Decision Limited or Possibly Widespread?
The decision appears to be a correct one based on the wording of the New Jersey statute. If “licensed practical nurses” was not a category of licensed professionals included by the Legislature in the New Jersey statute, then the courts should not “read them into” coverage by the statute. Unfortunately, this was probably merely an oversight on the part of whatever bill drafter and committee proposed the legislation in the first place. Licensed practical nurses and their professional associations should immediately lobby the Legislature of New Jersey to have the “loophole” filled.
Whether similar results are possible in other states will depend on the wording of the similar laws in those states. For example, Florida has a somewhat similar statute, but it does not actually name the specific category of medical provider covered by the act (e.g., “medical doctor,” “chiropractor”). Instead, the Florida Law, Section 766.202, Florida Statutes, refers to those covered by the medical malpractice statute as “any person licensed under part I of chapter 464, Florida Statutes. . . .[etc.]” Registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and advanced nurse practitioners are all licensed under that part and chapter of the Florida law. So a problem similar to the one in New Jersey never arises.
Contact Health Law Attorneys With Experience Representing Nurses and Handling Licensing Issues.
If you are applying for a nursing or healthcare license, have had a license suspended or revoked, or are facing imminent action against your license, you must contact an experienced healthcare attorney to assist you in defending your career. Remember, your license is your livelihood; it is not recommended that you pursue these matters without the assistance of an attorney. The Health Law Firm routinely represents nurses, physicians, dentists, medical groups, clinics, and other healthcare providers in personal and facility licensing issues.
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Karpan, Andrew. “No Affidavit Needed To Sue ‘Practical’ Nurses, NJ Court Says.” Law360. (November 9, 2022). Web.
Murphy, Colleen. “NJ Appeals Court: No Affidavit of Merit Needed for Negligence Claim Against Licensed Practical Nurse.” Law.com. (November 10, 2022). Web.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave., Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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