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Scott v. Weems

Supreme Court of Texas

April 26, 2019

Baylor Scott and White, Hillcrest Medical Center, Petitioner,
Ruthen James Weems III, Respondent

          Argued January 31, 2019

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Sixth District of Texas



         The Texas Medical Liability Act (Act) requires a claimant pursuing a "health care liability claim" to timely serve an adequate expert report.[1] Failure to do so requires dismissal with prejudice.[2] In this case, the claimant asserts a nurse fraudulently recorded information in a patient's medical records, but the claimant did not serve anything purporting to be an expert report. We hold that dismissal of the lawsuit is required because this falsified-medical-records claim is a health care liability claim subject to the Act's expert-report requirements. We therefore reverse the court of appeals' judgment and render judgment for the health care provider.

         I. Background

         Ruthen James Weems III was indicted for aggravated assault by shooting or striking Ernest Bradshaw and using or exhibiting a deadly weapon-a firearm-during the commission of the crime. Weems sued Baylor Scott and White, Hillcrest Medical Center (the Hospital) for intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleging he was indicted only because the nurse who examined Bradshaw after the incident had falsified Bradshaw's medical record by fraudulently describing Bradshaw's injury as a "point-blank" "gunshot wound" to the head.

         The disputed medical record states, "EMS and patient report another individual put a gun to his head and patient pushed it away as it fired. Has two penetrating wound [sic] to left forehead." The "[i]njury mechanism" is described as a "gunshot wound" with a description of the physical exam as showing "[two] penetrating wounds to left forehead concerning for GSW [gun shot wound] with entrance and exit wound. No other signs of head trauma." The record provides a "[f]inal diagnoses" of "[a]ssault with GSW (gunshot wound)" and "[t]raumatic hematoma of forehead." The medical record notes Bradshaw was discharged after this initial examination and treatment. The record does not identify Bradshaw's alleged assailant by name or description.

In Weems's live pleadings, he alleged that, "[a]s a trained nurse, it had to have been apparent to [the nurse] at the time that the medical report was written that Ernest Bradshaw was not shot." Weems elaborated:
4. [T]he nurse who wrote Ernest Bradshaw's medical report knowingly, intentionally and willingly falsely reported that Bradshaw had been shot in the head.
5. The nurse . . . was fully aware at the time that the information in that medical report was being used in a criminal investigation against Weems, and that the falsity of [the nurse's] written statements would have a severe negative impact on Weems's life.
6. Upon information and belief, Plaintiff surmises that this nurse was coerced into putting this false information down by [a police officer] in an attempt to cover up an illegal entry into his motel room and an illegal search of that room and seizure of Weems's person.
7. Ernest Bradshaw did not have any injuries that were consistent with any that might have been caused by a gunshot . . . .
9. The false medical report . . . was constructed with malicious intent and reckless disregard for truth for the primary purpose of falsely imprisoning Plaintiff Weems, ruining his reputation and keeping him incarcerated for the remainder of his life.
10. The flagrantly false information in this medical report was used . . . to charge Weems with attempted murder and his bond was set at $100, 000 as a direct result of it.
27. The actions of the nurse who wrote the fraudulent medical report were both extreme and outrageous, and because of those actions Plaintiff Weems has remained incarcerated for nearly two years to live under purposely oppressive conditions solely because of the false information that Defendant recorded in Bradshaw's medical report.

         Weems further claimed that he had "made it plainly clear [to the police] that Bradshaw had not been the victim of a shooting" and that "the only evidence" supporting the allegation "was the fabricated medical report written by the nurse who worked for [the Hospital]." According to Weems, a forensics expert subsequently examined pictures of Bradshaw's injury along with his medical record and determined it was "not possible" that Bradshaw had been shot.

         The Hospital answered with a general denial, invoked the civil-liability limitations in Chapter 74 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, and asserted various affirmative defenses. For suits involving a "health care liability claim," Chapter 74 requires the claimant to serve an adequate expert report within 120 days after the defendant's original answer has been filed.[3]Dismissal with prejudice is required if an expert report is not timely served.[4]

         Weems did not serve an expert report even after the Hospital alerted him to a potential dismissal risk by prematurely filing a Chapter 74 dismissal motion. Instead, Weems took the position that Chapter 74 does not apply to his personal injury claims because they are not medical malpractice claims. Following a hearing on the Hospital's amended motion to dismiss, the trial court dismissed Weems's suit with prejudice and awarded the Hospital its attorney's fees and costs.

         Weems appealed, complaining about the dismissal but not the monetary award to the Hospital. The appeal was then transferred pursuant to a docket-equalization order.[5] Applying the transferring court's precedent, as required, [6] the court of appeals reversed and remanded, holding that "claims involving alteration and fabrication of medical records are not healthcare liability claims and, therefore, do not trigger the expert report requirement of Section 74.351."[7] However, the court noted that a split exists in the appellate courts on that point and further opined that the transferring court's precedent had questionable vitality "[u]nder the current state of the law."[8]

         We granted the Hospital's petition for review to address this issue of first impression.

         II. Discussion

         The Texas Medical Liability Act's comprehensive statutory framework strikes "a careful balance between eradicating frivolous claims and preserving meritorious ones."[9] As one of its chief features, the Act imposes a threshold requirement that suits asserting health care liability claims must be supported by an expert report "before litigation gets underway."[10] The expert-report mandate is a substantive hurdle that helps ensure frivolous claims are eliminated quickly.[11] Weems did not serve anything resembling an expert report, either in name or substance; therefore, his suit must be dismissed with prejudice if he is asserting a health care liability claim.[12]

         Whether a claim is a health care liability claim under the Act is a question of law we review de novo.[13] In doing so, we consider the underlying nature of the plaintiff's claim rather than its label.[14] Accordingly, we need not consider whether Weems's claim is for intentional infliction of emotional distress, as stated in his pleadings, or fraud, as stated in his appellate briefs. As our precedent makes clear, a party cannot avoid Chapter 74's requirements and limitations through artful pleading.[15]

         When a claim brought against a health care provider is "based on facts implicating the defendant's conduct during the course of a patient's care, treatment, or confinement," a rebuttable presumption arises that it is a health care liability claim for purposes of the Medical Liability Act.[16]Weems's pleadings invoke the presumption here. As recounted in his amended petition, the claim that Bradshaw's medical records were falsified is based on a nurse's alleged conduct during the course of a patient's care and treatment. Weems therefore bears the burden of rebutting the presumption that his claim is a health care liability claim. He has not done so.

         A. Health Care ...

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