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Causes of Action for General Negligence and Premises Liability Against A Health Care Provider Are Deemed Ordinary Negligence Not Professional Negligence

Flores, a patient, sued the Hospital for general negligence and premises liability. Flores pled she injured her left knee and elbow when the bed rail collapsed, causing Flores to fall to the floor. The trial court held the action was time-barred.

Is Premises Liability Malpractice or Negligence?

For purposes of determining the applicable statute of limitations, the essential issue presented is whether Flores’s lawsuit arose out of professional malpractice or ordinary negligence. The trial court ruled the action arose out of the alleged “professional negligence” of a health care provider, so as to be subject to the one-year statute of limitations (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.5) imposed by the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA) (Stats. 1975, 2d Ex. Sess., ch. 1, § 25, pp. 3969-3970, ch. 2, § 1.192, pp. 3991-3992).

Based on a survey of case law and statutory analysis, we conclude Flores’s action sounded in ordinary negligence, so as to be governed by the two-year statute applicable to personal injury actions. (§ 335.1.) Therefore, Flores’s lawsuit was filed timely.

On March 2, 2011, Flores filed suit against the Hospital, pleading causes of action for general negligence and premises liability.

The Hospital demurred, contending that although Flores labeled her causes of action as “general negligence” and “premises liability,” the action sounded in “professional negligence” and therefore was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. (§ 340.5.) The Hospital reasoned, “the alleged negligence was an integral part of the professional services being rendered to plaintiff. Plaintiff was under the care of [the Hospital] and her alleged injuries occurring in the [H]ospital. Any purported claim is for medical negligence.”

In her opposition papers, Flores asserted this was a case of ordinary negligence, not professional negligence. Here, “no negligence was committed in assessing the condition of Plaintiff and in failing to raise the side rails. That medical assessment had already been made and a medical decision to raise the side rails had been made. As such, . . . there was no professional negligence. It was only after the rendition of all professional services (i.e., the assessment of Plaintiff’s condition and medical decision to employ side rails), and after the side rails had been negligently latched, that those side rails collapsed, injuring Plaintiff.”

The matter came on for hearing. The trial court sustained the Hospital’s demurrer to the original complaint without leave to amend. The trial court reasoned: “To decide whether an action arises out of the professional negligence of a health care provider, the nature and cause of a plaintiff’s injury must be examined to determine whether each is directly related to the manner in which professional services were provided.’ [Citation.] The Court looks not at the degree of skill involved, but whether such skill is an integral part of the professional service being rendered. [Citations.] . . . [T]he hospital here has a duty to recognize the condition of patients under its care and to take appropriate measures for their safety.’

Flores contends her action is governed by the two-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury actions per CCP 335.1, rather than the one-year statute of limitations per CCP 340.5 applicable to medical malpractice actions. California Personal Injury Lawyer Steven Peck and the California appellate court agree.

Section 340.5, MICRA’s limitations provision, states in pertinent part:

In an action for injury or death against a health care provider based upon such person’s alleged professional negligence, the time for the commencement of action shall be three years after the date of injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury, whichever occurs first.” (§ 340.5, italics added.)

Section 340.5 neither deals with, nor defines, ordinary negligence. It defines “professional negligence” as “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services, which act or omission is the proximate cause of a personal injury . . . , provided that such services are within the scope of services for which the provider is licensed and which are not within any restriction imposed by the licensing agency or licensed hospital.” (§ 340.5, subd. (2), italics added.)

Section 335.1, which is outside MICRA, is the statute on which Flores relies. Section 335.1 is the limitations period for personal injury actions, i.e., ordinary negligence. It states:

Within two years: An action for assault, battery, or injury to, or for the death of, an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.” (Ibid., italics added.)4

Because the limitations period differs depending upon the characterization of the alleged negligence, the essential issue presented is whether Flores’s fall from a hospital bed constituted professional negligence or ordinary negligence. If the complaint sounds in professional negligence, it would be barred by the one-year limitations period of section 340.5. Conversely, if the complaint sounds in ordinary negligence, this action would be governed by the two-year limitations period of section 335.1 and therefore would be timely.

“[I]t is recognized that the dividing line between ‘ordinary negligence’ and ‘professional malpractice’ may at times be difficult to place . . . Gopaul,  38 Cal.App.3d at p. 1007.)

Nonetheless, the instant fact situation is easily distinguished from the five California cases discussed above, arising out of patient falls from beds or gurneys. All those cases involve injury to a patient resulting from the failure to properly secure or supervise the patient while on a hospital bed or gurney.

  • In Gin, although the side rails were raised, a confused patient who was not properly medicated and was unsupervised, fell while attempting to climb out at the foot of the bed. (Gin, supra, 249 Cal.App.2d at p. 779.)
  • In Gopaul, a patient fell after being left unattended on a gurney, to which she had not been strapped. (Gopaul, supra, 39 Cal.App.3d at p. at p. 1004.)
  • In Murillo, the bedrails were left down during the night and the patient fell out of bed. (Murillo, supra, 99 Cal.App.3d at pp. 53, 56.) In Flowers, the nurse raised only the far side railing of the gurney and the patient fell off the gurney. (Flowers, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 995.)
  • Finally, in Bellamy, the patient fell after being left unattended on a rolling X-ray table which had not been secured. (Bellamy, supra, 50 Cal.App.4th at p. 799.)

Here, in contrast, as alleged in the complaint, the patient was injured “when the bed rail collapsed causing plaintiff to fall to the ground injuring her left knee and elbow.” (Italics added.) Thus, Flores does not allege the Hospital was negligent in failing to elevate the bed rails or in otherwise failing to supervise or secure her. Rather, Flores alleges she was injured by an equipment failure, i.e., a collapsed bed rail.

The alleged negligence is the Hospital’s failure “to use reasonable care in maintaining [its] premises and fail[ing] to make a reasonable inspection of the equipment and premises, which were open to Plaintiff and the public, and fail[ing] to take reasonable precautions to discover and make safe a dangerous condition on the premises.” As set forth ante, the discrete issue presented is whether these allegations by Flores, involving a collapsed bed rail, sound in ordinary negligence or professional negligence.

In the era of MICRA, the controlling language is found in the statutory definition of professional negligence, which focuses on whether the negligence occurred in the rendering ofprofessional services. To reiterate, for purposes of section 340.5,”professional negligence” is defined as “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services . . . .” (§ 340.5, subd. (2), italics added.)5

Clearly, there is a dichotomy between ordinary negligence and professional negligence, with MICRA only governing the latter type of negligence. However, the statutory definition of professional negligence is less than clear. Therefore, the courts have grappled with whether a given fact situation constitutes ordinary negligence or professional malpractice.

We conclude the instant fact situation, consisting of a collapsed bed rail, does not constitute professional negligence. The test under section 340.5 is whether “‘the negligent act occurred in the rendering of services for which the health care provider is licensed.'”

(Bellamy, 50 Cal.App.4th at p. 806.) For example, in Bellamy, the patient “was injured either in preparation for, during, or after an X-ray exam or treatment.”

The Court rejected Murillo‘s dictum that a negligently maintained, unsafe condition of a hospital’s premises which causes injury to a patient falls within professional negligence. Injury to a patient from a fallen chandelier, or from a negligently maintained bed rail which collapses, does not amount to professional negligence within the meaning of section 340.5. To reiterate, “not every tortious injury inflicted upon one’s client or patient or fiducial beneficiary amounts to [professional] malpractice.” (Gopaul, supra, 38 Cal.App.3d at p. 1006; accord, Murillo, supra, 99 Cal.App.3d at p. 56; Bellamy, supra, 50 Cal.App.4th at p. 803.) The critical inquiry is whether the negligence occurred in the rendering of professional services. ( § 340.5, subd. (2); Bellamy, supra, 50 Cal.App.4th at pp. 805-806.)

The appellate Court ruled that based upon  Flores’s complaint, which alleged she was injured “when the bed rail collapsed causing plaintiff to fall to the ground,” sounds in ordinary negligence because the negligence did not occur in the rendering of professional services. As pled in the operative complaint, the alleged negligence was the Hospital’s failure “to use reasonable care in maintaining [its] premises and fail[ing] to make a reasonable inspection of the equipment and premises, which were open to Plaintiff and the public, and fail[ing] to take reasonable precautions to discover and make safe a dangerous condition on the premises.” Therefore, the action is governed by the two-year statute of limitations (§ 335.1), making the lawsuit timely.

The PECK LAW GROUP specializes in personal injury matters relating to Serious and Catastrophic Injury, Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect, Bed Sores, Decubitus Ulcers, and Pressure Sores, Medical Malpractice, Surgery Errors, Traumatic Brain Injury, Birth Injury and Wrongful Death that are determined to be a breach of the standard of care.  Our experts and our attorneys have superior knowledge and know how in handling these type of matters from inception to Trial if need be.  You will receive superior representation and of course the best possible result based upon our know how and expertise.

Call us Now.  THE PECK LAW GROUP In Southern California at (818) 908-0509; In Northern California at (925) 808-5708; or all across the United States toll free at (866) 999-9085

– from Steven Peck, Senior Attorney at Peck Law Group
 

The Peck Law Group

About the Author

Attorney Adam Peck has been practicing law since 1981. A former successful business owner, Mr. Peck initially focused his legal career on business law. Within the first three years, after some colleagues and friend’s parents endured nursing home neglect and elder abuse, he continued his education to begin practicing elder law and nursing home abuse law.


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