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Pre-Examination Intake by Medical Assistant Constitutes “Health Care” Invoking the MPLA

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In a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia (“WVSCA”), the Court ruled that a pre-examination intake interview by a medical assistant employed by MedExpress fell within the definition of “health care,” as defined by the Medical Professional Liability Act (“MPLA”) at West Virginia Code § 55-7B-2(e) (2006).  The Court rejected Petitioners’ argument that the claim was properly plead as one for premises liability, not involving the provision of medical care, thereby falling outside the provisions of the MPLA.  The significance of this ruling was the requirement that Plaintiffs comply with the pre-suit requirements of a notice of claim and screening certificate of merit prior to the filing of their Complaint.  Further, the application of the MPLA to Plaintiffs’ claims will operate to limit the potential overall recovery with the application of the non-economic damages cap.  Justice Loughrey authored the opinion for the Court, from which Justice Davis dissented.

Minnich v. MedExpress Urgent Care, Inc., Civil Action No. 13-C-1547, arose out of events on January 25, 2013, when Mr. Minnich, accompanied by his wife, presented to the South Charleston MedExpress with complaints of shortness of breath, weakness, and potential pneumonia.  Medical Assistant Jessica Hively, an employee of MedExpress, completed an intake interview of Mr. Minnich, during which he disclosed that he had recently undergone hip surgery and had only recently begun to ambulate without the assistance of a walker.  After completing the intake interview, Ms. Hively escorted the Minnichs to an examination room and directed Mr. Minnich to be seated on the examination table.  After Ms. Hively exited the room, Mr. Minnich attempted to access the examination table using a retractable step connected to the table.  He fell back onto Mrs. Minnich and contacted the floor.  Mrs. Minnich asserted in her claim that Mr. Minnich sustained a brain bleed during the fall which ultimately lead to his death ninety days later.

Mrs. Minnich asserted the instant claim as one for negligence based upon premises liability and included allegations for loss of consortium and wrongful death.  MedExpress insisted that Mrs. Minnich’s claim fell within the MPLA, thereby requiring compliance with the pre-suit notice of claim and screening certificate of merit requirements prior to the filing of suit. 

The WVSCA was persuaded by MedExpress’s argument, finding that Ms. Hively, as an “employee” of MedExpress qualified as a “health care provider” and that her intake interview and instructions to Mr. Minnich to sit upon the examination table qualified as “health care” – particularly in light of the undisputed fact that the fall occurred while Mr. Minnich was “attempting to comply with the directive of that ‘health care provider’ to sit on an examination table – a piece of medical equipment routinely used to examine a patient.”  The Court further determined that Plaintiffs specifically raised the issue of Ms. Hively’s professional training and judgment by relying on the awareness she and MedExpress had of Mr. Minnich’s weakened condition and his ambulatory restriction.  The WVSCA ultimately concluded that the injuries sustained by Mr. Minnich were sustained in the course of his evaluation at MedExpress, thereby subjecting his claim to the substantive and procedural requirements and limitations of the MPLA.   

This decision is an important tool in an health care provider’s toolbox when considering whether a claim has been properly plead or should be subject to the requirements and limitations of the MPLA.  Contact any member of our Professional Liability Team with questions regarding the application of this decision.      

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