Tenn. high court to rule on liability in medical cases

By Jamie Satterfield

The legal cure for out-of-state patients suffering malpractice at the hands of interns and residents at Tennessee’s teaching hospitals rests now not with white-jacketed medical professionals but with black-robed judicial power brokers.

The state Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to decide a legal principle that has far-reaching implications for the state’s teaching hospitals, including the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the doctors-in-training employed there and the patients who travel across state lines to seek treatment there.

If Assistant Attorney General Robin Dixon prevails, out-of-state patients would find it difficult, if not impossible, to seek damages for malpractice by state-employed medical students. If attorney Travis Venable wins, teaching hospitals like UT Medical Center would not enjoy an automatic shield for their employees in cases involving patients from other states.

Sitting in Knoxville, the state’s high court Wednesday heard arguments in the case of a Virginia man who checked into the Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center in Johnson City in 2004 for what was to be a routine surgery and left a dying man with both legs amputated.

What caused Daniel Mullins’ death and who, if anyone, was responsible for it matters little in the appellate review. A federal jury already has deemed Mullins’ doctors and Wellmont itself blameless.

Unlike Mullins’ other medical caretakers, Dr. Jose Luis Mejia, a resident at East Tennessee State University who also treated Mullins at Wellmont, was not a defendant at that federal trial. As a state employee, he cannot be sued in federal court. Venable, on behalf of Mullins’ widow, turned instead to the state’s Claims Commission to pursue damages against Mejia.

Dixon contends that the jury already concluded via its dismissal of Mullins’ lawsuit that Mejia was blameless. He should not face a Claims Commission complaint, Dixon told the justices. Venable countered that Mejia cannot be tried under the law in federal court.

Out-of-state patients only have an automatic right to file malpractice action in federal court. State employees cannot be sued in federal court. If the high court sides with Dixon, out-of-state patients would have to choose between federal court action against nonstate employees or a Claims Commission petition against state employees, he argued.

Jamie Satterfield may be reached at 865-342-6308.

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