Court Rules Fed. Funded Health Care Facilities Do Not Retain Unqualified Immunity from Tort Lawsuits

On Wednesday in the District of South Carolina, Judge Michelle Childs denied a motion to dismiss claims that Low Country Health Care System Inc. (LCHC) negligently allowed Dr. Robert Jones, an LCHC employee, to “improperly touch(), molest(), and grop(e)” the plaintiff without consent, according to a July 19, 2019, complaint

In response to the 2019 complaint, the U.S. government filed a motion to substitute the U.S. as the defendant, arguing that under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), LCHC is an employee of the U.S. and thus is not the proper defendant. The motion to substitute was granted, naming the U.S. the proper defendant, and the U.S. on July 31 filed the motion to dismiss.

In its argument, the U.S. said this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, contending that the plaintiff’s claim that LCHC was negligent is barred by the FTCA because it “arises out of the intentional torts of assault and battery committed by Dr. Jones,” despite the claim being “sound in negligence,” the court explained. The U.S. also argued that the plaintiff’s action does not “allege an injury resulting from medical malpractice” nor “involve the provision of medical care as required for coverage of a federally-funded community health care center” under the FTCA and that it should have sovereign immunity in the matter.

In the plaintiff’s response, they claimed that the court does have jurisdiction, as “the injury was caused by the ‘negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee’ ” and that “a private person would be liable to the claimant in accordance with South Carolina law,” the court explained. The plaintiff did not dispute the defendant’s other arguments.

Health centers receiving federal funds and their employees are eligible for coverage of medical malpractice under the FTCA; “a party may only recover damages for personal injury, including death, resulting from the performance of medical, surgical, dental, or related functions,” the court explained. In dispute, then, was whether the plaintiff’s claim constituted a related function.

The judge found that the court does indeed have subject matter jurisdiction over this matter because “job functions may … be protected … if they are ‘interwoven’ with providing medical care,” according to Goss v. United States; renewing agreements and continually vetting medical practitioners “is inextricably woven into its performance of medical functions,” according to M.G. v. United States, and thus the negligence of hiring and supervising the practitioner is interwoven.

The judge also found that the plaintiff’s claim “directly related to this job function,” as “Dr. Jones sexually assaulted the plaintiff during an appointment at which Dr. Jones was supposed to provide medical care, and the plaintiff’s injuries stemmed from Dr. Jones’ behavior,” which “unambiguously implicates LCHC’s job function of continuously vetting its physicians” as integral to providing medical care.

Regarding the U.S.’s argument that sovereign immunity should bar the plaintiff’s claim, the judge explained that the section of the FTCA normally protecting sovereign immunity “shall not apply to assault or battery arising out of negligence in the performance of medical, surgical, dental, or related functions,” allowing the plaintiff’s claim to proceed.

The plaintiff is represented by Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, PA.