Given the different procedural and substantive rules that apply in medical negligence cases, distinguishing medical negligence from ordinary negligence is a fundamental issue in cases that possibly implicate medical negligence. Indeed, many attorneys are aware of the far more arduous standards that apply to medical negligence, and they will often try to purposefully describe the facts and underlying legal theories of a case in order to avoid it being placed in the ambit of medical negligence liability. Although artful pleading can occasionally be successful, courts define medical negligence broadly and, as a result, stymie many creative attorneys’ attempts to avoid these heightened rules for liability. For instance, the scope of medical negligence was an issue in a recent decision from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, Shands Teaching Hosp. and Clinics, Inc. v. Estate Of Lawson, which addressed whether an alleged act of negligence arising from services provided at a psychiatric unit qualified as “medical negligence.”
Lawson followed a tragic accident in January 2013. The plaintiff in this case is the estate of a woman who, two months prior to the date of the accident, had been admitted to the facility for a psychiatric condition. Although she was confined in a locked psychiatric ward, the woman was able to retrieve an employee’s unattended keys and badge and abscond from the facility. The woman went to a nearby interstate, where she was struck by an oncoming truck and died. Her estate brought suit against the facility, arguing that the defendant’s action amounted to “ordinary negligence.” The facility moved to dismiss, contending that the complaint sounded in “medical negligence,” and therefore the plaintiff needed to comply with the provisions of Section 766.106(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes. Since the plaintiff did not comply with the mandatory pre-suit requirements of Section 766.106(1)(a), the facility argued that the complaint should be dismissed.