Texas expands medical liability protections for state-employed doctors
■ The state's high court rules that lawsuits must be brought against a government entity and not the physicians working for them.
By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Feb. 14, 2011
Texas doctors employed by the state have gained an extra layer of protection against medical liability lawsuits after a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Texas.
The majority of justices ruled that plaintiffs must sue the government entity where an alleged medical error occurred -- not the physician. In the past, doctors employed at state-run facilities faced the same susceptibility in lawsuits as their private practice counterparts.
The Jan. 21 ruling stems from several medical liability cases before the state Supreme Court concerning doctors employed by government entities and their scope of liability immunity. The court chose to examine one case as its lead to condense its review of the similar issues.
In Franka and Reddy v. Velasquez, the parents of a newborn sued obstetrician-gynecologist John Franka, MD, and Nagakrishna Reddy, MD, for an injury to the baby's shoulder during delivery, according to court documents. The parents did not sue University Hospital, where the baby was born. University is a public teaching hospital owned by the Bexar County Hospital District. Dr. Franka was a faculty member at the hospital, and Dr. Ready was a resident at the time of the delivery.
Drs. Franka and Reddy said they should not be held liable. Attorneys for Dr. Franka moved to dismiss the case under the Texas Tort Claims Act, which requires liability lawsuits against government employees to be thrown out or default to their employer.
The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the case could have been brought against the hospital and that the doctors should not be held personally liable.
By a 6-2 vote, the court reversed a lower court's decision and remanded the case to the trial court. The court sent the six related cases back to their respective courts of appeals to reconsider.
"We think the court got it right. Government employees should be treated all the same," said Rocky Wilcox, vice president and general counsel for the Texas Medical Assn. Other government employees have long been protected from liability lawsuits under Texas law, he said.
At this article's deadline, attorneys for the Velazquezes had not returned calls seeking comment. An attorney for Dr. Franka said the Velazquez family had filed a motion for a rehearing.
Before state tort reform was implemented in 2003, Wilcox said a lack of liability protection for doctors employed at state-run facilities caused significant staffing problems at government hospitals. Though medical centers had liability award caps of $100,000, physicians were not covered by the umbrella.
"The doctors were taken out of the government protection," he said. "They were the big targets."
The ruling clarifies portions of the Texas Tort Claims Act that previously generated confusion, said Don Cruse, a Texas attorney who researches and blogs about state Supreme Court decisions. "It does create a real contrast between public and private doctors," he said. "It wasn't as stark before."
The decision also provides ongoing stability for medical liability insurance premium rates, Wilcox said. "This is one more example of how the tort atmosphere in Texas for physicians continues to improve."