Duties Owed to All by a Healthcare Provider Sound in Premises Liability, Not Medical Malpractice

In Johnson v. Open Door Community Health Centers, No. A143992, the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, recently held that MICRA did not apply where a patient who was attempting to exit a clinic after the conclusion of her medical treatment tripped on a scale which she alleged was partially obstructing the path from the consultation room to the hallway.

Prior to the patient’s medical consultation, she was weighed on a scale located against the wall in the hallway outside of the treatment room. After the consultation concluded, the patient headed towards the building exit and tripped on the scale which she alleged was moved during the consultation. The patient filed a complaint for personal injuries nearly two years later. The clinic filed a motion for summary judgment on grounds that the patient’s injuries were proximately caused by a “negligent act or omission by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services” and that her claim was time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations under MICRA. The trial court granted the motion noting that “the precise boundary between professional negligence and premises liability [was] currently unsettled.”

However, while the Johnson appeal was pending, the Supreme Court provided greater clarity to this distinction in Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hosp, upon which the Johnson court relied heavily. In the Flores case, the plaintiff’s doctor assessed the plaintiff and ordered the rails on her bed to be raised. When she attempted to exit her bed, one of the rails collapsed, causing her injuries. The court set forth guiding principles for whether an injury’s legal cause occurs in “the rendering of professional services” as opposed to ordinary negligence.

The Flores court held that “professional services” are not limited to activities requiring the application of medical skill and training. The court also rejected the proposed rule that “professional services” include all acts associated with medical care because such a rule would sweep in negligence in performing duties that hospitals owe to all users. Instead, the Flores court drew a distinction between the professional obligations of hospitals in the rendering of medical care to their patients and “the obligations hospitals have, simply by virtue of operating facilities open to the public, to maintain their premises in a manner that preserves the well-being and safety of all users.” For example, if a chair in a hospital waiting room were to collapse, the resulting claim would be the subject of the two-year statute of limitations because “the hospital’s duty with respect to that chair is no different from that of any other home or business with chairs in which visitors may sit.”

The Johnson court noted that the clinic’s placement of the scale posed a tripping hazard to all users of its facility, including patients, employees, and other invitees, to maintain safe premises. It found these facts to be akin to Flores’ example of the collapsing chair where the failure to maintain the chair threatens to harm all visitors, not just the patients, and therefore constitutes ordinary, not professional negligence. Accordingly, the court held that the trial court’s application of the one-year statute of limitations for professional negligence was in error.

The holding in Johnson represents yet another case in the Plaintiff’s Bar’s attempts to distinguish between claims for premises liability and professional liability and take cases against healthcare providers out of the purview of MICRA. The key determinations set forth in Johnson are (1) whether the injury occurred in the rendering of professional services and (2) whether the mechanism of injury posed a hazard to all users of the medical facility.

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September 15, 2017