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Tort or Medical Malpractice? Insurance Companies Battle Over Coverage in Ouachita Parish Injury Case

On June 27, 2008, Betty Jean Russell went to see her eye doctor at Eye Associates of Northeast Louisiana. Russell, 78, who required a wheelchair to get around, was driven to the apppointment by her granddaughter, Ashley Dixon. While Dixon remained in the waiting room, an Eye Associates employee wheeled Russell back to an examination room. There, Russell was required to move to one of the facility’s wheelchairs in order to access one of the examination machines. Then, in order for her to look into a different machine, Russell was required to return to her own wheelchair. In the process of moving back to her own wheelchair unassisted, Russell fell, injuring her shoulder and breaking her thighbone. The Eye Associates employees did not call an ambulance, but rather helped Russell off the floor and back into her wheelchair. Dixon immediately drove her grandmother to the ER where Russell underwent surgery to set her broken leg. Although Russell was able to walk from time to time prior to her injuries, she was no longer able to walk at all. Russell filed suit against Eye Associates and Hanover Insurance Co., its general liability insurer. She also filed a petition for a medical review panel under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act. The Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company (LAMMICO), the professional liability insurer for Eye Associates, intervened in the action. Hanover filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Russell was injured while Eye Associates employees were delivering professional services, and therefore Russell’s claim was one of medical malpractice. LAMMICO, on the other hand, argued in its own motion for summary judgment that Russell’s fall was “not treatment-related” or “caused by a dereliction of professional skill,” which meant that LAMMICO was not liable for coverage for her injuries.

The trial court held a hearing on the motions for summary judgment, during which it determined that this was not a medical malpractice case. The court granted summary judgment in favor of LAMMICO and denied Hanover’s motion. Hanover appealed on the basis that “the undisputed facts
and evidence establish that the plaintiff’s injuries occurred as a result of a ‘medical incident,’ as defined by the LAMMICO policy.” On appeal, the Second Circuit reviewed that “[w]hen determining whether a policy affords coverage for an incident, the insured bears the burden of proving that the incident falls within the policy’s terms.” Furthermore, “summary judgment declaring a lack of coverage under an insurance policy may not be rendered unless there is no reasonable interpretation of the policy, when applied to the undisputed material facts shown by the evidence supporting the motion, under which coverage could be afforded.” The court noted that the definition of malpractice under Louisiana law includes “unintentional torts by healthcare providers and their employees based on health care or professional services rendered.” The LAMMICO policy maintained by Eye Associates provided professional liability coverage for “incidents arising out of the rendering or failure to render professional services.” The policy defined professional services to include treatment, diagnosis, rendering medical opinions or advice, or performing management or administrative duties by Eye Associates employees. LAMMICO argued that no doctor (or other health care provider) was involved in the accident, as “no assessment of [Russell's] condition had taken place” at the time of her fall. However, the court noted that Russell testified that the Eye Associates employee involved in her accident had already used one type of machine to examine her eyes and was attempting to
position her in order to use another machine; this move from one wheelchari to another was necessary in order to continue Russell’s eye examination. This point, in the court’s view, created “a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the accident constitutes a medical incident which occurred in connection with the rendering of professional services, satisfying the statutory definition of malpractice and meeting the terms of the LAMMICO policy for coverage.” Accordingly, the court found that the trial judge erred in granting summary judgment in favor of LAMMICO. It reversed the trial court’s judgment an remanded the case for further proceedings.

This case shows how seemingly simple claims can turn complex in litigation. Much of the Second Circuit’s decision rested on a review of the insurance policies themselves, as contracts, to determine the potential for coverage for Russell’s claims. As with any personal injury case, it was essential for the plaintiff to retain experienced counsel to ensure that all potential defendants were brought into the litigation.

If you have been injured while under the care of a medical service provider and have questions about what kind of claim you may have, call the Berniard Law Firm today at 866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help you obtain the recovery you deserve.