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University of North Texas Health Science Center v. Jimenez

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

August 3, 2017

UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER APPELLANT
v.
JESSICA JIMENEZ, JENNIFER GALO, CATHERINE FRANK, IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, AND WILLIAM TYLER II, AS INDEPENDENT ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF PAMELA J. KNIGHT, DECEASED APPELLEES

         FROM THE 352ND DISTRICT COURT OF TARRANT COUNTY TRIAL COURT NO. 352-275721-14

          WALKER, GABRIEL, and KERR, JJ. PANEL

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          ELIZABETH KERR JUSTICE.

         We are asked to decide, under section 101.101(c) of the civil practice and remedies code, whether certain entries in medical records equate to actual notice to Appellant University of North Texas Health Science Center, a governmental unit, of an injury to its patient Pamela Knight-an injury that is alleged to have triggered a cascade of problems leading to her death. If the records sufficed to put UNT Health on notice within the meaning of section 101.101(c), then the trial court properly denied UNT Health's motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.[2]

         We hold that UNT Health did not have the requisite actual notice within the meaning of the code and reverse the decision below.

         Background

         In the latter part of 2012, Pamela Knight became a patient of UNT Health and its employee Dr. Albert H. Olivencia-Yurvati, D.O. Dr. Yurvati has been a UNT Health faculty member for over two decades, and currently chairs UNT Health's Department of Surgery. The record does not reveal when Dr. Yurvati became department chair, nor does it show what sorts of duties-investigative, reporting, risk-management-related, or otherwise-accompany that position.

         Knight, who was overweight, had undergone gastric lap-band surgery at a weight-loss facility the previous year and, after complications necessitated the band's removal, ultimately developed a significant side effect known as "nutcracker esophagus." This painful condition results in such strong and involuntary esophageal contractions that food has difficulty reaching the stomach.

         After evaluating Knight, Dr. Yurvati recommended surgery-a "left thoracotomy with extensive esophageal myotomy"[3]-and performed that procedure on December 11, 2012. The next day, December 12, Dr. Yurvati ordered an esophagram, which showed no problems. But in the days that followed, Knight's condition "began to markedly deteriorate"; she developed low levels of oxygen concentration in her blood (hypoxemia) and needed support ventilation in the form of bilevel positive airway pressure so that she could breathe.

         After a thoracostomy procedure on December 17 that placed a chest tube in Knight's left lung-needed because of a loculated pneumothorax-her condition continued to worsen.[4] Eight days after Knight's initial surgery, a second esophagram on December 19 revealed a leak in her esophagus that, according to Appellees, had resulted from an esophageal perforation during the December 11 surgery. Despite Dr. Yurvati's attempt to repair the perforation on December 20 through a second thoracotomy, Knight's condition worsened to the point of developing a massive infection.

         Months of additional medical problems and procedures culminated in Knight's death in May 2013 at the age of 56. In November 2014, Appellees- Knight's brother (as estate administrator) and Knight's mother and two adult daughters-sued UNT Health and Plaza Medical for medical negligence.[5]

         UNT Health's records

         Because both sides agree that UNT Health was not given written notice of the incident forming the basis of the plaintiffs' claims within six months of December 11, 2012, see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.101(a), we focus only on whether Knight's medical records as maintained by UNT Health provided "actual notice" to that entity that she had "received some injury." Id. § 101.101(c).

         Knight's family points us to Dr. Yurvati's December 20, 2012 operative report, which contains entries that they contend satisfy the statute:

PREOPERATIVE DIAGNOSES:
1. Distal esophageal perforation.
2. Status post esophageal ...

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