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Seton Family of Hospitals v. White

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

October 24, 2019

Seton Family of Hospitals d/b/a Seton Medical Center Williamson, Appellant
v.
Tomaurz White as Administrator of the Estate of Latoya Jones and as Next Friend of A.W., A Minor; Gale Machon Jones; and Clarence Jones, Appellees

          FROM THE PROBATE COURT NO. 1 OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO. C-1-PB-18-001576, THE HONORABLE GUY S. HERMAN, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Triana and Smith

          OPINION

          Gisela D. Triana, Justice.

         Seton Family of Hospitals d/b/a Seton Medical Center Williamson ("Seton") appeals from the trial court's order denying its motion to dismiss the health-care-liability claims of plaintiff Tomaurz White as Administrator of the Estate of Latoya Jones and as next friend of A.W., a Minor, and plaintiff-intervenors Gale Machon Jones and Clarence Jones ("Plaintiffs"). In two issues on appeal, Seton asserts that Plaintiffs' statutorily required expert reports, see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 74.351, were deficient and that, consequently, Seton was entitled to dismissal of the Plaintiffs' claims against it and to its attorney's fees. We will affirm the trial court's order.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs allege that Latoya Jones gave birth to A.W. at Seton Medical Center-Williamson on June 14, 2016, and was released from the hospital on June 17, 2016. Two days later, Jones returned to Seton complaining of fever, headache, dysuria, and elevated blood pressure. She was evaluated and discharged from the hospital that same day. The next morning, Jones was found non-responsive in her bed, and she died on June 22, 2016.

         Plaintiffs filed suit against Seton, other health-care entities, and multiple physicians who had treated Jones, alleging that they were negligent in their evaluation and treatment of Jones and that this negligence was the proximate cause of her death.[1] The petition included the following allegations:

Through the substandard treatment of Latoya Jones, Defendants, and each of them, either individually and/or by their agents, representatives and/or employees, failed to adhere to the applicable standards of medical care. . . .
. . . .
Upon information and belief, at all relevant times, the healthcare workers treating Latoya Jones during the relevant time period described herein, were agents or employees or servants of Defendants, and each of them. The substandard treatment of Latoya Jones was performed within the course and scope of their duties each of the Defendants. Therefore, in addition to acts of medical negligence, Defendants are vicariously liable for the negligence of these healthcare workers through the doctrine of respondeat superior and all other applicable vicarious liability doctrines, at law and equity, including ostensible agency or apparent authority, if applicable.

         Plaintiffs later served two expert reports on the defendants, one related to the conduct of Dr. Timothy Leeds, the assistant surgeon who had helped deliver A.W., and the other related to the conduct of Dr. Laura Pittman, the emergency room physician who had evaluated and treated Jones upon her return to Seton. Seton filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the expert reports failed to implicate Seton in the alleged negligence of the physicians. The trial court held a hearing on the motion and later denied the motion to dismiss. This interlocutory appeal followed. See id. § 51.014(a)(9).

         GOVERNING LAW

         "Chapter 74 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, also known as the Texas Medical Liability Act [TMLA], requires health-care-liability claimants to serve an expert report upon each defendant not later than 120 days after that defendant's answer is filed." Abshire v. Christus Health Se. Tex., 563 S.W.3d 219, 223 (Tex. 2018) (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 74.351(a)). A "core purpose" of the expert-report requirement is to "identify and eliminate frivolous health care liability claims expeditiously, while preserving those of potential merit." Samlowski v. Wooten, 332 S.W.3d 404, 410 (Tex. 2011). "An adequate expert report is how the statute distinguishes between" frivolous and meritorious claims. Id. at 411.

         "An expert report is sufficient under the Act if it 'provides a fair summary of the expert's opinions . . . regarding applicable standards of care, the manner in which the care rendered . . . failed to meet the standards, and the causal relationship between the failure and the injury.'" Abshire, 563 S.W.3d at 223 (quoting Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 74.351(r)(6)). "Importantly, the trial court need only find that the report constitutes a 'good faith effort' to comply with the statutory requirements." Id. (quoting Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 74.351(1)). "To constitute a 'good-faith effort,' the report must provide enough information to fulfill two purposes: (1) it must inform the defendant of the specific conduct the plaintiff has called into question, and (2) it must provide a basis for the trial court to conclude that the claims have merit." Bowie Mem'l Hosp. v. Wright, 79 S.W.3d 48, 52 (Tex. 2002). "In analyzing a report's sufficiency under this standard, we consider only the information contained within the four corners of the report." Abshire, 563 S.W.3d at 223; see Baty v. Futrell, 543 S.W.3d 689, 693-94 (Tex. 2018).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review a trial court's ruling on the adequacy of an expert report under the TMLA for an abuse of discretion. Abshire, 563 S.W.3d at 223; American Transitional Care Ctrs. of Tex., Inc. v. Palacios, 46 S.W.3d 873, 877 (Tex. 2001). A trial court abuses its discretion when it "renders an arbitrary and unreasonable decision lacking support in the facts or circumstances of the case" or "acts in an arbitrary ...


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