§31.5 Government Healthcare Providers as Tortfeasors
The Case: Mooney v. Sneed , 30 S.W.3d 304 (Tenn. 2000).
The Basic Facts: Plaintiff sued emergency medical technicians (EMTs) employed by local governmental entity and the entity. The EMTs sought dismissal, saying they were immune from suit.
The Bottom Line:
- "Our analysis begins with the proposition that the City of Memphis, as a governmental entity, is generally immune from suit for any injury resulting from its tortious actions, except in those instances in which immunity is expressly removed by the GTLA. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201(a) (Supp. 1999); Hawks v. City of Westmoreland, 960 S.W.2d 10, 14 (Tenn. 1997). One such instance of express removal under the GTLA is the removal of governmental immunity for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of a governmental employee, except under certain circumstances. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205 (Supp. 1999). Even where governmental immunity is removed by statute, governmental employees are generally immune from individual liability. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999). However, there is a statutory exception to this immunity from individual liability for governmental employees. The exception in the statute reads:
No claim may be brought against an employee or judgment entered against an employee for damages for which the immunity of the governmental entity is removed by this chapter unless the claim is one for medical malpractice brought against a health care practitioner. . . .Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999) (emphasis added)." 30 S.W.3d at 306.
- "Relying upon the foregoing statutory language, the defendant-EMTs argue that they are immune from suit because they are not health care practitioners. The plaintiff contends, on the other hand, that the defendant-EMTs are not immune from suit because § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999) expressly authorizes a claim 'for medical malpractice brought against . . . health care practitioner[s]' and EMTs are health care practitioners thus subject to individual liability." Id.
- "In order to resolve the issue, our task is one of statutory construction. We must interpret Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999) to determine whether EMTs are included within the language 'health care practitioner[s].' To aid us in our work, there are a number of principles of statutory construction, among which is the most basic rule of statutory construction: ''to ascertain and give effect to the intention and purpose of the legislature.'' Gleaves v. Checker Cab Transit Corp., Inc., 15 S.W.3d 799, 802 (Tenn. 2000) (quoting Carson Creek Vacation Resorts, Inc. v. State Dep't. of Revenue, 865 S.W.2d 1, 2 (Tenn. 1993)). However, the court must ascertain the intent 'without unduly restricting or expanding the statute's coverage beyond its intended scope.' State v. Sliger, 846 S.W.2d 262, 263 (Tenn. 1993). See also Gleaves, 15 S.W.3d at 802; Worley v. Weigels, Inc., 919 S.W.2d 589, 593 (Tenn. 1996); Owens v. State, 908 S.W.2d 923, 926 (Tenn. 1995). 'The legislative intent and purpose are to be ascertained primarily from the natural and ordinary meaning of the statutory language, without a forced or subtle interpretation that would limit or extend the statute's application.' State v. Blackstock, 19 S.W.3d 200, 210 (Tenn. 2000) (citing State v. Pettus, 986 S.W.2d 540, 544 (Tenn. 1999))." Id. at 307.
- "Courts are not authorized 'to alter or amend a statute.' Gleaves, 15 S.W.3d at 803. The reasonableness of a statute may not be questioned by a court, and a court may not substitute its own policy judgments for those of the legislature. Id. (citing BellSouth Telecomm., Inc. v. Greer, 972 S.W.2d 663, 673 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997)). '[C]ourts must 'presume that the legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.'' Id. (quoting BellSouth Telecomm., Inc., 972 S.W.2d at 673)." Id.
- "When the foregoing principles of statutory construction are applied to the language of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999), we have no difficulty concluding that EMTs are health care practitioners." Id.
- "EMTs are licensed under the Emergency Medical Services Act of 1983. Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 68-140-501 to 68-140-522 (1996 & Supp. 1999). Under the Act, an EMT is defined as 'an individual licensed to practice emergency medical care.' Tenn. Code Ann. 68-140-502(12) (Supp. 1999). An emergency medical technician-paramedic ("EMT-P") is defined as 'an individual licensed to practice advanced emergency medical care.' Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-140-502(13) (Supp. 1999). 'Emergency medical services' are defined as those 'services utilized in responding to the perceived need for immediate medical care in order to prevent loss of life or aggravation of illness or injury.' Tenn. Code Ann. § 68-140-502(11) (Supp. 1999)." Id.
- "Applying the foregoing statutes to the facts in this case, the defendant- EMTs were licensed under this Act. The proof shows that the two defendant-EMTs had received specialized training to become licensed as emergency medical technicians and that they provided specialized medical care to Mooney based upon their training. The defendant-EMTs testified that they went to the accident scene and assessed the injuries the patient had and then began treating him until the time he was released to the hospital." Id.
- "We conclude that the defendant-EMTs are 'health care practitioners' within the meaning of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b) (Supp. 1999) and that they are not protected by the immunity provisions of the GTLA." Id. at 308.
Other Sources of Note: As a result of this decision, the General Assembly modified the language of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-310(b). The statute now reads as follows:
No claim may be brought against an employee or judgment entered against an employee for damages for which the immunity of the governmental entity is removed by this chapter unless the claim is one for medical malpractice brought against a health care practitioner. No claim for medical malpractice may be brought against a health care practitioner or judgment entered against a health care practitioner for damages for which the governmental entity is liable under this chapter, unless the amount of damages sought or judgment entered exceeds the minimum limits set out in § 29-20-403 or the amount of insurance coverage actually carried by the governmental entity, whichever is greater, and the governmental entity is also made a party defendant to the action. As used in this subsection (b), "health care practitioner" means physicians licensed under title 63, chapter 6, and nurses licensed under title 63, chapter 7.
The amendment of the statute reverses the Mooney decision and therefore EMTs who are not also licensed as nurses or doctors are immune from suit and any claim of negligence against them can be only filed against their governmental employer. The changes to the statute still permit a licensed nurse or doctor to be sued if the amount of damages sought exceeds the minimum limits set out in § 29-20-403 or the amount of insurance coverage actually carried by the governmental entity, whichever is greater, so long as the governmental entity is also made a party defendant to the action. The Mooney decision is included in the text to remind lawyers of the history of the law in this area.