Waiver of Medical Malpractice Claims Against Tennessee State Employees

When dealing with medical malpractice and personal injury claims against state employees, following the correct procedures for litigation can be exceptionally tricky. Under general principles of sovereign immunity, states are generally immune from liability for injuries that their employees may incur.  In certain cases, states like Tennessee waive this immunity and allow claims to be brought against state employees, but only in certain circumstances and under certain procedures. A failure to properly follow such procedures can result in the dismissal of a claim.  A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looks closely at medical malpractice claims brought against state-employed physicians and whether such claims are waived when they are not properly brought.

In Sumner v. Campbell Clinic, Mr. Sumner was scheduled to undergo a bone graft to treat an injury in his right leg.  Prior to the surgery, Mr. Sumner and his family warned physicians that he had recently had another surgery near his right hip to address a hernia. As a result, Mr. Sumner requested that the bone graft be taken from the site of his left hip, rather than his right hip.  Despite these directions, the surgeons attempted to take the bone graft from his right hip. Due to weaknesses in the area that was recovering from surgery, the surgeons punctured his small bowel, allowing fecal matter to be released into his body cavity.  The resulting complications left Mr. Sumner dependent on a feeding tube.

Shortly after the surgery, Mr. Sumner sought legal counsel and commenced litigation. His attorney filed a complaint in court against his treating physicians. However, since it was believed that the physicians might have been employees of the State of Tennessee at the time of the surgery, Mr. Sumner’s attorney also filed a notice of possible claim against a state employee with the Tennessee Division of Claim Administration, as required under state statute. The notice advised the state that they were investigating the possibility of medical malpractice against a state employee. Several months into litigation before the Circuit Court, Mr. Sumner’s attorney changed course, attempting to withdraw the notice of claim before the Tennessee Claims Commission and arguing that instead the claims could be brought against the doctors in court because they were for intentional conduct, rather than negligence.  At the same time, the doctor defendants in the case filed a motion for summary judgment in their favor. The trial court granted the motion, and Mr. Sumner appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals sua sponte raised the issue of jurisdiction. Putting aside the arguments raised by both parties, the court questioned whether it even had jurisdiction to consider Mr. Sumner’s claims, given that Tennessee law requires that all claims against state employees be brought before the Tennessee Claims Commission.  Since this was the procedural structure created by the state for dealing with the liability of state employees, the court determined that it had no jurisdiction over Mr. Sumner’s claims.  Indeed, by filing a claim with the Division of Claims Administration, the court held that Mr. Sumner had acknowledged the exclusive authority and jurisdiction of the Claims Commission and had waived any right to have his claims heard by the state courts. Accordingly, regardless of the merits of Mr. Sumner’s claims of intentional misconduct or the doctors’ defenses, the appellate court determined that they could not be heard by the trial court but instead were required to be referred to Tennessee’s administrative bodies.

This case clarifies an issue of waiver that had been discussed by the Tennessee courts for some time but never directly decided. It makes clear that Tennessee residents seeking to bring claims against state employees must do so by filing a notice of claim with the Tennessee Division of Claim Administration and proceeding through administrative channels before considering other remedies.

If you have recently been the victim of an accident that you believe may have been caused by a state employee, knowledgeable personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can help you investigate whether issues of immunity may arise and which state procedures may be required. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Limiting the Scope of Duties Tennessee Universities Owe To Their Students, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 21, 2016.

Government Liability in Tennessee for Automobile Accidents Involving Police Officers, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, April 13, 2016

Can Tennessee Emergency Vehicles Be Held Liable for Accidents That Occur While On Emergency Calls?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 10, 2016.