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Johnson v. Rutherford County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 11, 2018

MELISSA GALE JOHNSON ET AL.
v.
RUTHERFORD COUNTY, TENNESSEE ET AL.

          Session October 5, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Rutherford County No. 70031 M. Keith Siskin, Judge

         The plaintiffs, as co-conservators for their adult son, filed this action against the county, seeking payment of medical expenses incurred by their son following an assault upon him by another inmate while he was incarcerated at the county jail facility. The plaintiffs later amended their complaint to add allegations of civil rights violations, general negligence, and health care liability. The county filed a third-party complaint against the medical provider with whom the county had contracted to provide medical services for the inmates at the jail. The third-party complaint was based upon an indemnity clause contained within the respective parties' contract. The medical provider filed a motion to dismiss the county's third-party complaint because the county had not complied with the requirements of the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act ("THCLA"). Following a hearing, the trial court dismissed the county's third-party complaint by reason of the county's failure to comply with the requirements of the THCLA. The county timely appealed. Having determined that the trial court erred by treating the county's third-party complaint as a THCLA claim, we reverse the court's dismissal of the county's third-party complaint.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Blake Garner and Nicholas Christiansen, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, Rutherford County, Tennessee.

          Edward A. Hadley, Renee Levay Steward, and Brent A. Kinney, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Rudd Medical Services, PLC.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.

          OPINION

          THOMAS R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The plaintiffs' adult son, Robert L. Johnson, was arrested and booked into the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center ("RCADC") on October 20, 2014. Mr. Johnson remained in the custody of RCADC on December 20, 2014, when Mr. Johnson was assaulted by another inmate, Guy Mitchell, with whom Mr. Johnson shared a cell. As a result of this attack, Mr. Johnson suffered life-threatening injuries, including a severe brain injury, and was transported to the hospital, where he remained in the intensive care unit for several weeks. Mr. Johnson was allegedly rendered permanently disabled as a result of his injuries.

         The co-plaintiffs, Melissa Gale Johnson and Ernest Wade Johnson, acting as co-conservators for Robert L. Johnson ("Plaintiffs"), filed a complaint on July 24, 2015, seeking payment of Mr. Johnson's medical expenses in the amount of $293, 413. Plaintiffs sought payment of these expenses from Rutherford County ("the County"), pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 41-4-115 (2014), which provides in pertinent part: "The county legislative bodies alone have the power, and it is their duty, to provide medical attendance for all prisoners confined in the jail in their respective counties." On August 26, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a "First Amended Complaint, " wherein they reduced the damages sought for Mr. Johnson's medical bills to $230, 303.

         The County filed an answer to the amended complaint on October 7, 2015, admitting that it had not paid for all of Mr. Johnson's medical expenses but denying that it was liable for same. The County asserted, inter alia, that it was immune from suit pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act.

         On November 24, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a motion seeking to amend their complaint in order to add claims of civil rights violations and negligence. Plaintiffs also sought to add Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold and Ken Tucker as named defendants. The trial court entered an order allowing the amendment of Plaintiffs' complaint on December 11, 2015. The court noted in this order that Plaintiffs had revised the proposed amended complaint.

         Plaintiffs subsequently filed a "Revised Second Amended Complaint" on December 11, 2015, wherein Plaintiffs added a negligence claim against the County for housing Mr. Johnson with Mr. Mitchell, who allegedly suffered from mental illness and had a known propensity for violent attacks against other inmates.[1] Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that in October 2014, Mr. Mitchell's relatives had contacted Ken Tucker, who was director of health care services at RCADC, and informed him that Mr. Mitchell suffered from mental illness and that Mr. Mitchell was a danger to himself or others. According to the complaint, Mr. Mitchell's relatives also informed Mr. Tucker that Mr. Mitchell had assaulted other inmates in the past. Plaintiffs further alleged that Mr. Mitchell threatened Mr. Johnson on the day of the assault and that deputies were notified of this threat but did not timely respond to it. Plaintiffs sought damages in the amount of $300, 000 pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act.

         On January 15, 2016, the County filed an answer and third-party complaint, asserting a claim against Rudd Medical Services, PLC, a/k/a Rudd Medical Management Services, LLC ("Rudd"), Mr. Tucker's employer and the entity that provided medical services to the prisoners housed at RCADC. The County alleged that it had entered into a contract with Rudd for the provision of health care services to inmates, which contract contained a clause requiring Rudd to indemnify and hold the County harmless from any claims based upon, inter alia, the actions of Rudd employees.

         On April 8, 2016, Plaintiffs filed another motion to amend their complaint, seeking to assert negligence claims pursuant to the THCLA against Rudd and Mr. Tucker. Plaintiffs stated that they had complied with the pre-suit notice requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 29-26-121 and -122. Plaintiffs attached to their motion a "Third Amended Complaint, " which asserted a health care liability claim, and also attached a copy of the pre-suit notice documents, "HIPPA-Compliant Release, " and Certificate of Good Faith provided to the defendants. Plaintiffs later struck their April 8, 2016 motion to amend and concomitantly filed an additional motion to amend along with a revised "Third Amended Complaint." This complaint contained additional allegations of negligence against the County based on the County's purported knowledge of Mr. Mitchell's previous violent behavior. On May 24, 2016, the trial court entered an order allowing Plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The Third Amended Complaint was filed on May 16, 2016.

         On December 19, 2016, Rudd filed a motion to dismiss the County's third-party complaint against Rudd or, in the alternative, a motion for summary judgment. Rudd asserted that the County had failed to file a certificate of good faith with its third-party complaint, as required by Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-122. Rudd further averred that it had attached affidavits executed by Mr. Tucker and John Rudd, M.D., which "clearly and completely negate[d] essential elements of [the County's] claim against [Rudd]."

         Mr. Tucker stated in his attached affidavit that he was a registered nurse and director of health services for Rudd, such that he was responsible for the "supervision and oversight of medical care of inmates" at RCADC. Mr. Tucker opined that he had complied with the applicable standard of care at all times. Mr. Tucker also stated that Mr. Mitchell was under the treatment of Dr. Rudd and was routinely receiving medication for his mental health needs prior to the incident at issue. According to Mr. Tucker, he had no control over where or how an inmate was housed.

         Dr. Rudd stated in his affidavit that he was a physician who provided medical services to inmates at RCADC, including Mr. Mitchell, and that he also supervised the medical staff there. Dr. Rudd opined that he had complied with the applicable standard of care concerning his treatment of Mr. Mitchell. Dr. Rudd explained that Mr. Mitchell was under his medical care and supervision at the time of the incident in question. Dr. Rudd further stated that Mr. Mitchell did not meet the criteria for transfer to a secure psychiatric facility.

         The County filed a response in opposition to Rudd's motion to dismiss, arguing that its claim against Rudd was not a healthcare liability action. The County cited the indemnity clause contained within its contract with Rudd, which states:

[Rudd] shall indemnify and hold the Sheriff, the County and each of their elected officials, officers, employees and agents (hereinafter collectively referred to as the "indemnified persons") whole and harmless from and against all costs, liabilities and claims for damages of any kind (including judgments, interest, attorney's fees and costs of investigation and defense) arising out of the performance of [Rudd], its agents or servants under this Proposal and resulting contract and/or negligent, wanton, intentional or deliberate acts or omissions of [Rudd] or any of its agents, servants or employees.

         The County further asserted that because its claim involved contractual indemnification for ordinary negligence, rather than medical malpractice, it was not required to comply with Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-26-122.

         On February 27, 2017, the trial court entered an order granting Rudd's motion to dismiss. The court stated that the THCLA defined a health care liability action as "any civil action . . . alleging that a health care provider or providers have caused an injury related to the provision of, or failure to provide, health care services to a person, regardless of the theory of liability on which the action is based." See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101(a)(1). The trial court relied upon our Supreme Court's opinion in Ellithorpe v. Weismark, 479 S.W.3d 818, 827 (Tenn. 2015), echoing the High Court's statement that the THCLA established

a clear legislative intent that all civil actions alleging that a covered health care provider or providers have caused an injury related to the provision of, or failure to provide health care services be subject to the pre-suit notice and certificate of good faith requirements, regardless of any other ...

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