Dawkins v. Union Hospital – Doctors, Hospitals, Can Face Ordinary Negligence Claims

Under South Carolina law, civil actions alleging medical malpractice against doctors, hospitals and medical staffers have to follow a very strict set of procedures, per S.C.C.L. Section 15-79-110. These differ from what is required for ordinary claims of negligence.
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However, the South Carolina Supreme Court recently ruled in Dawkins v. Union Hospital that not all claims against doctors, hospitals or health care institutions need follow the medical malpractice format – but only if the issue stems from ordinary negligence, and not medical malpractice.

Personal injury lawyers in Rock Hill have been carefully watching this case, as it may shape the way future cases are filed.

The procedural background:

In February 2009, the plaintiff began experiencing an extreme headache and was unable to maintain her balance. Her daughter, believing she might be suffering a stroke, called 911. An ambulance arrived and transported the plaintiff to a local hospital.

The plaintiff’s daughter informed hospital staffers of her mother’s symptoms and also of her instability and the possibility that she might be having a stroke. The hospital admitted her, but did leave her unattended and unmonitored. Further, the hospital staff wouldn’t allow the woman’s family to come back into the area where she was being held.

At some point, after being admitted but prior to receiving any treatment, the plaintiff attempted to get up and use the restroom, but fell, resulting in a fractured foot.

In February 2011, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the hospital and staffers, alleging that her injuries were proximately caused by the hospital staff’s failure to comply with hospital policies and failure to keep a watchful eye on her, despite reports of dizziness, headaches and instability. Further, no precautions were taken to make sure she didn’t fall.

The hospital moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that the filings did not meet the statutory requirements, which included having an expert affidavit or issuing proper notification of intent to sue.

The trial court granted the hospital’s motion to dismiss, finding that the claim fell within the broad definition of medical malpractice.

The plaintiff moved for reconsideration on the grounds that her lawsuit was in fact a negligence claim based on premises liability. She was a business invitee, she claimed. The trial court denied her request.

The plaintiff appealed, and the following question was certified to the South Carolina Supreme Court: Was the appellant’s cause of action a claim of medical malpractice or ordinary negligence?

The court answered in the latter. While indicating that there are no rigid lines of distinction between the two types of action, the court said differentiation would depend heavily on the facts presented in each individual case.

Expert testimony is required in preparation for a medical malpractice case in order to establish the duty owed to the patient and the breach of duty – unless the subject matter falls within a layman’s common understanding or knowledge.

The court was careful to say that not every injury sustained by a patient in a hospital is medical malpractice or requires expert testimony just to establish the claim. The example offered was a fall in a hallway that isn’t properly maintained or injury caused by a falling ceiling tile.

This case was a little trickier because the plaintiff was considered a patient at the time of her injury, by virtue of the fact that she’d been admitted to the hospital. However, she had not even begun to receive treatment at the time the incident occurred. Further, there was no allegation of negligent administration of medical care. Indeed, the claim was that no care had been provided at all.

Thus, the lower court’s ruling was reversed and the case remanded for further proceeding.

Contact the South Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Dawkins v. Union Hospital, April 9, 2014, South Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
“Error in Judgment” Jury Charge in Medical Malpractice Cases, Feb. 27, 2014, Rock Hill Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog

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