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The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston v. Crawford

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

December 31, 2019

THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MEDICAL BRANCH AT GALVESTON, Appellant
v.
JAYSON CRAWFORD, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF TRACY CRAWFORD, DECEASED, Appellee

          On Appeal from the 122nd District Court Galveston County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 16-CV-1419

          Panel consists of Justices Christopher, Wise, and Hassan.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TRACY CHRISTOPHER, JUSTICE

         In this medical-malpractice wrongful-death case, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston ("UTMB") challenged the trial court's jurisdiction on the ground that appellee Jayson Crawford's claims do not fall within the Texas Tort Claims Act's waiver of immunity from suit for personal injury and death proximately caused by the use of tangible personal property. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 101.021(2). Because the gravamen of Crawford's complaint is that the diagnosis and treatment of decedent Tracy Crawford were delayed by UTMB's negligent failure to obtain and act upon intangible information, the trial court reversibly erred in denying UTMB's plea and motion to dismiss. We further conclude that no repleading can bring the claims within the Act's ambit. We therefore reverse the trial court's denial of UTMB's plea to the jurisdiction and remand the case with instructions to dismiss the claims against UTMB.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Tracy Crawford presented to UTMB's emergency room at around 9:30 a.m. complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath that began "just prior" to her arrival. She was placed under the care of Drs. Wakili Yarima and Jonathan Soto, and an electrocardiogram was immediately performed, with normal results. Dr. Soto ordered a blood test to determine the level of the muscle protein troponin in Tracy's blood. A blood sample was drawn at 10:00 a.m., and when the lab reported the results forty-five minutes later, Tracy's troponin level was normal. A note on the lab report states, "Cardiac troponin begins to rise 3-4 hours after the onset of ischemia. Repeat in 4-6 hours if the sample was drawn within 3-4 hours of the onset of the symptom and found normal."

         A chest x-ray also did not reveal the cause of Tracy's pain, and doctors began ruling out other non-cardiac causes. Tracy's urine tested negative for drugs, [2] and an abdominal scan did not explain her symptoms.

         Tracy's pain continued, and at 4:17 p.m., Dr. Yarima ordered another troponin test. The blood sample was collected twenty minutes later, but before the laboratory reported the results, Tracy underwent a second electrocardiogram, which revealed her acute myocardial infarction. Tracy was taken to the cardiac catheterization lab at around 5:45 p.m., and about twenty minutes later, the laboratory analyzing Tracy's most recent blood sample reported that she had extremely elevated troponin levels.

         The cardiac catheterization showed that Tracy's proximal anterior descending artery was completely blocked. Doctors removed the clots and placed a stent, but two days later, the damage to her heart had progressed to the point of cardiogenic shock. She died five days later from multiple organ failure.

         Tracy's husband Jayson, individually and on behalf of Tracy's estate, sued Dr. Yarima and UTMB for medical malpractice.[3] He alleged that UTMB was negligent "[i]n its misuse of the tangible personal property, specifically the troponin tests," and in "failing to diagnose and treat the myocardial infarction in a timely manner using tangible property, which would have ultimately saved her life." UTMB filed a combined plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss on the ground that Jayson's claims did not fall within the Texas Tort Claims Act's waiver of sovereign immunity from suit for injuries and deaths caused by the use of tangible personal property.[4] According to UTMB, Jayson's claims were really about the use of medical judgment and the failure to collect and use diagnostic information. Jayson argued in response and on appeal that UTMB caused Tracy's death by misusing her blood.

         The trial court denied UTMB's plea to the jurisdiction and motion to dismiss, and UTMB timely filed this interlocutory appeal.

         II. Standard of Review

         Unless waived or abrogated, sovereign immunity shields the state and its agencies from a lawsuit for damages by depriving the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Univ. of Hous. v. Barth, 403 S.W.3d 851, 853 (Tex. 2013) (per curiam) (dismissing case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction where sovereign immunity was not waived); Hearts Bluff Game Ranch, Inc. v. State, 381 S.W.3d 468, 476 (Tex. 2012) (sovereign immunity applies to lawsuits for damages). The plaintiff bears the burden to establish the trial court's jurisdiction. See Heckman v. Williamson County, 369 S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012).

         Whether the trial court has subject-matter jurisdiction is a question of law that can be challenged by a plea to the jurisdiction. See Suarez v. City of Texas City, 465 S.W.3d 623, 632 (Tex. 2015). We review the trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction by determining whether the plaintiff's pleadings, construed in the plaintiff's favor, allege facts sufficient to affirmatively demonstrate the trial court's jurisdiction over the claim. See Hearts Bluff, 381 S.W.3d at 476. If relevant to the jurisdictional issue, we also consider the evidence submitted by the parties. Tex. Nat. Res. Conservation Comm'n v. White, 46 S.W.3d 864, 868 (Tex. 2001). In performing our review, "we look to the true nature of the dispute" rather than the plaintiff's characterization of the claims. Univ. of Tex. M.D. Anderson Cancer Ctr. v. McKenzie, 578 S.W.3d 506, 513 (Tex. 2019); see also Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch at Galveston v. Kai Hui Qi, 402 S.W.3d 374, 389 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2013, no pet.). If the plaintiff's pleadings affirmatively negate jurisdiction or are incurably defective, then the court may grant the plea to the jurisdiction without giving the plaintiff the opportunity to amend. See Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 150; Univ. of Tex. M.D. Anderson Cancer Ctr. v. King, 329 S.W.3d 876, 879-80 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2010, pet. denied).

         III. No ...


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