Florida’s Second District Reverses in Hospital Sexual Assault Case

hospital hallwayMany find an extended stay in a medical facility to be a nerve-wracking affair. Likely not among the many fears that one considers in advance of a stay at a hospital, however, is the risk that the staff would intentionally exploit one’s vulnerability. Nevertheless, even the unexpected has the potential of becoming reality. For instance, in a recent decision, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal tackled issues arising from an unfortunate case involving a woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted while receiving care at at a hospital’s mental health care facility.

In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that while she was a patient at the aforementioned mental health care facility, a technician employed by the hospital sexually assaulted her in her room. She further alleged that she reported this attack to hospital officials, whom she claims intimidated her and declined to investigated the incident. She also asserted that there was a high prevalence of sexual assaults at this facility and that the hospital and its agents failed to exercise reasonable care in preventing the attack. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the purported assaulter had ready access to her room and acted suspiciously prior to the incident in common areas where his conduct was observable to others.

Following the alleged attack, the plaintiff brought suit against the hospital and other parties. Her complaint stated two claims, one sounding in common negligence and the other sounding in the hospital’s statutory duties under Section 766.110 and Section 395.0197 of the Florida Statutes. Following discovery, the hospital moved to dismiss both claims against it, arguing that both claims were those of “medical negligence,” which required the plaintiff to adhere to pre-suit notice requirements under Chapter 766 of the Florida Statutes. Although the plaintiff did not comply with these rules, the trial court denied the motion because it found that neither of the plaintiff’s claims was one for medical negligence. The hospital then brought the current appeal.

In its opinion, the Second District of Appeal split the difference, finding that the trial court erred in denying the motion only with respect to one of the plaintiff’s claims. First, the court summarily rejected the hospital’s argument with respect to the claim sounding in common-law negligence. Indeed, in the complaint, the plaintiff simply asserted that the hospital needed to act with reasonable care and failed to do so by failing to take reasonable measures to curtail the purported high risk of sexual assault at the facility. To be clear, even though the plaintiff styled her claim as one of ordinary negligence, it may still be found to actually be one for medical negligence if the heart of the claim “arises out of any medical, dental, or surgical diagnosis, treatment, or care.” Fassy v. Crowley, 884 So. 2d 359, 364 (Fla. 2d DCA 2004) (brackets omitted) (quoting J.B. v. Sacred Heart Hosp. of Pensacola, 635 So. 2d 945, 947 (Fla. 1994)). In this case, however, it was clear the the plaintiff’s allegations with respect to this claim did not involve any provision of diagnosis, treatment, or care. Instead, the claim simply focused on the fact that the alleged assaulter had the ability to enter and exit her room several times without supervision. Accordingly, summary judgment on this claim was properly denied.

The Second District, however, reached a different conclusion with respect with the plaintiff’s claim under Section 766.110 and Section 395.0197. Section 766.110 provides that health care providers must comply with the comprehensive risk management program requirements outlined in Section 395.0197. The risk management program rules provided under Section 395.0197 generally relate to the investigation, reporting, and management of patient adverse incidents, and the court noted that the statute defines these incidents as those “associated in whole or in part with medical intervention.” Accordingly, the Second District reasoned that the claim clearly “arise[] out of any medical, dental, or surgical diagnosis, treatment, or care,” Fassy, 884 So. 2d at 364 (quoting Sacred Heart, 635 So. 2d at 947), and the trial court erred in not granting summary judgment for it.

Although one of the plaintiff’s claims was lost, the case serves as an important reminder that not all claims that arise from acts at a hospital necessarily fall under the strict rules of medical negligence. Indeed, in light of the strict procedural and evidentiary rules that apply to medical malpractice claims, a plaintiff with potential claims against a medical facility should consider finding counsel experienced in distinguishing common negligence from medical negligence. The South Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are experienced with the niceties of standard and medical negligence claims, and they are ready to assist you with a potential claim. If you’ve recently been injured at a medical facility and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a free case evaluation.

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