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Residential Treatment Facility Not a Health Care Provider Under Florida Medical Malpractice Statute, Townes v. National Deaf Academy, LLC, Case No. 5314-904 (Fla. 5th DCA 2016)

Medical malpractice claims constitute a significant number of the negligence actions filed in Florida state courts. The types of lawsuits are complex in nature and may invoke statutory provisions that govern the rights and obligations of parties involved. Because Florida statute tightly regulates medical malpractice claims, statutory definitions are critical, and as the case below illustrates, such definitions may determine whether plaintiffs can move forward with their claims.

In Townes v. National Deaf Academy, LLC, a patient in a residential treatment facility required a leg amputation after she was put in a disciplinary hold by a care provider at the facility. The place in question operated as both a residential treatment facility and a school for autistic, hard of hearing, or deaf individuals who possess behavioral and psychiatric conditions. The facility staff consists of nurses, therapists, and psychiatrists who provide medical and educational services. The patient in question suffered from multiple mental disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and impulse control disorder. As part of the patient's care plan, staff members implemented Therapeutic Aggression Control Techniques where they restrained her physically after senior employees made a determination that such techniques were warranted after the patient experienced a behavioral episode.

During the time of the incident in question, the patient left the facility and, upon returning, started pulling at wires and cables and throwing rocks. The facility's staff members attempted to verbally diffuse the situation, but were unsuccessful in doing so. Consequently, a nurse decided to perform a disciplinary hold, which failed to control the patient as well. The patient, during the hold, put her toe on the ground, wrapped her leg around another nurse, and caused both of them to fall. The patient sustained a leg injury which, at the time, staff members believed was a dislocated knee. They provided the patient with medication and facilitated treatment at a local hospital. However, the patient eventually required for her leg to be amputated because of the injury she suffered during the disciplinary hold.

The patient's family members filed suit against the residential treatment facility. In their lawsuit, they claimed that the facility acted negligently in failing to use a less severe method of force than the disciplinary hold during the episode, failed to recognize that the patient needed to be in a different treatment facility, and did not provide the patient with reasonable care. In response, the defendant asked the court to dismiss the case, contending that the suit was not properly processed as a medical malpractice action and that the statute of limitations had expired. The trial court dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Fifth District Court of Appeals of Florida heard the case and agreed with the plaintiff that the facility did not meet the definition of health care provider under Florida's medical malpractice statute. Therefore, the court of appeals decided that the plaintiff was not required by law to follow the procedures for medical malpractice suits. Even though the events involved medical staff, the court of appeals ruled that the injuries were caused by decisions that required medical judgment or skill. Additionally, the court of appeals decided that the trial court erroneously held that the statute of limitations had expired. Therefore, the court remanded the case for the claims to move forward.

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