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Coci v. Dower

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

September 12, 2019

AMANDA MARIE COCI AND HEART OF TEXAS EMS, INC., D/B/A HEART OF TEXAS EMS, Appellants
v.
APRIL DOWER, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 35th District Court Brown County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. CV1801020.

          Panel consists of: Bailey, C.J., Stretcher, J., and Wright, S.C.J. [1]

          OPINION

          JIM R. WRIGHT SENIOR CHIEF JUSTICE.

         This is an accelerated interlocutory appeal in a personal injury lawsuit that April Dower filed against Amanda Marie Coci and Heart of Texas EMS, Inc., d/b/a Heart of Texas EMS. In the trial court, Appellants claimed that Dower's lawsuit constituted a health care liability claim and moved to dismiss Dower's suit because she failed to serve an expert report and curriculum vitae pursuant to Section 74.351(a) of the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA). See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 74.351 (West 2017). The trial court denied the motion, and this interlocutory appeal followed. We affirm.

         In her lawsuit, Dower alleged that she was injured in a single vehicle accident that occurred while her minor daughter was being taken from Abilene Regional Medical Center to Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, where the child was to undergo a medical procedure. Dower's daughter was being transported in a Heart of Texas ambulance. Amanda Marie Coci, a Heart of Texas EMS employee, was the driver of the ambulance. Dower accompanied her daughter in the ambulance; Dower was neither a patient nor a recipient of any care. While en route, the ambulance left the roadway and collided with the protective barrier in the median between the eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate Highway 20.

         Dower sued Appellants for negligence and gross negligence, seeking damages for injuries she allegedly suffered as a result of the incident. Dower's daughter is not a party to this suit and did not assert any claims or seek any damages. Dower alleged that Coci fell asleep while driving, which allegedly caused the ambulance to leave the roadway and strike the barrier.

         In the negligence cause of action, Dower alleged that Coci (1) failed to keep a proper outlook, (2) failed to turn the ambulance to avoid the collision, (3) failed to give adequate warning, (4) failed to adequately use the brakes, (5) drove at an unsafe speed, (6) failed to maintain a safe distance, (7) failed to maintain a single lane, and (8) failed to monitor oncoming traffic.

         The issue in this appeal is whether Dower's claims constitute health care liability claims under the TMLA. If so, then Dower was required to serve an expert report and curriculum vitae in accordance with Section 74.351(a) of the TMLA.

         The TMLA defines a health care liability claim as:

[A] cause of action against a health care provider or physician for treatment, lack of treatment, or other claimed departure from accepted standards of medical care, or health care, or safety or professional or administrative services directly related to health care, which proximately results in injury to or death of a claimant, whether the claimant's claim or cause of action sounds in tort or contract.

Civ. Prac. & Rem. § 74.001(a)(13). If Dower's claims constitute health care liability claims, then the trial court should have granted the motion filed by Appellants and dismissed Dower's claims with prejudice because she did not file or serve an expert report within 120 days of Appellants filing their original answer. See id. § 74.351(b).

         Whether a claim is a health care liability claim under the TMLA is a question of law that we review de novo. Scott v. Weems, 575 S.W.3d 357, 363 (Tex. 2019). In our review, we focus on the underlying nature of the cause of action, not the label given to the claim in the pleadings. Id. (explaining that "a party cannot avoid Chapter 74's requirements and limitations through artful pleading"); see also Tex. W. Oaks Hosp., LP v. Williams, 371 S.W.3d 171, 176 (Tex. 2012) ("In seeking to distinguish ordinary negligence claims from [health care liability claims], the heart of these cases lies in the nature of the acts or omissions causing claimants' injuries and whether the events are within the ambit of the legislated scope of the TMLA.").

         Appellants argue that Dower's claims implicate the "safety" prong of Section 74.001(a)(13). Since "safety" is not defined by the TMLA, the Texas Supreme Court defined the common meaning of "safety" as the "condition of being untouched by danger; not exposed to danger; secure from danger, harm or loss." Ross v. St. Luke's Episcopal Hosp., 462 S.W.3d 496, 501 (Tex. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court further explained that a safety standards-based claim against a health care provider constitutes a health care liability claim under the TMLA if there is "a substantive nexus between the safety standards allegedly violated and the provision of health care"; the alleged departure need not actually be "directly related" to health care. Ross, 462 S.W.3d at 504. In other words, "[t]he pivotal issue in a safety standards-based claim is whether the standards on which the claim is based implicate the defendant's duties as a health care provider, including its duties to provide for patient safety." Id. at 505.

         Because the line between a safety standards-based claim that is not a health care liability claim and one that is a health care liability claim may not always be clear, the court in Ross identified a nonexclusive list of considerations that inform a determination as to whether such a claim is substantively related to ...


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