Showing posts with label charitable immunity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label charitable immunity. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Court rejects deep-brain-stimulation patient's contract, IIED claims against Boston nonprofit hospital

A patient dissatisfied with deep-brain stimulation (DBS) to treat her depression could not prevail against her nonprofit hospital, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday, in part because she sued in contract rather than medical malpractice.

The plaintiff-patient sued Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc. (BWH), in Boston over her DBS treatment, which is experimental with respect to depression, but is approved to treat Parkinson's.  BWH paid for the $150,000+ treatment, which the plaintiff's insurance would not cover, with the design of expanding a program in psychosurgery.

CT scan of DBS implants
(Dr. Craig Hacking, A. Prof Frank Gaillard CC BY-SA 4.0)
The plaintiff initially reported favorable results.  But the relationship between patient and hospital "sour[ed]," the court explained.  The plaintiff became dissatisfied with the repeated interventions required to replace batteries and refine the DBS.  She believed that the hospital was short-changing her treatment because the psychosurgery program was not taking off as hoped.  The hospital pledged to do what was needed to support plaintiff's continued treatment, but the fulfillment of that pledge incorporated some cost-benefit analysis.  And the hospital would not accede to the plaintiff's demand that BWH pay for her treatment elsewhere.

The plaintiff sued BWH for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED).  The trial court entered summary judgment for the hospital, and the Appeals Court affirmed.

BWH (Jim McIntosh)
The court's opinion spends most of its pages establishing that there was no broken promise to support the breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims.  The hospital promised to treat the plaintiff for free, and it never charged her.

Of salience here, the court also concluded that the plaintiff had misstated a medical malpractice claim as a breach of contract claim, possibly to get around the $100,000 state cap on medmal liability for charitable organizations (not to mention the claims-vetting process of the commonwealth's medical malpractice tribunal).  The plaintiff asserted medmal would not be the appropriate cause of action for an experimental treatment and a dispute over cost.  But the court pointed to the plaintiff's repeated claims of the defendant's failure to comply with "scientific and ethical standards."

Finally, the court's treatment of IIED was instructive, if routine:

To prevail on this claim, [plaintiff] must prove "(1) that the actor intended to inflict emotional distress or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was the likely result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was 'extreme and outrageous,' was 'beyond all possible bounds of decency' and was 'utterly intolerable in a civilized community'; (3) that the actions of the defendant were the cause of the plaintiff's distress; and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was 'severe' and of a nature 'that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it'" (citations omitted) [gendered references in original] ....

BWH's actions do not constitute the sort of extreme and outrageous conduct that would allow [plaintiff] to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress. BWH's alleged wrongdoing arose in the context of its oral agreement to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in free care to a patient who otherwise could not afford treatment. Even putting "as harsh a face on [BWH's] actions ... as the basic facts would reasonably allow" [citation omitted], no jury could find it utterly intolerable in a civilized society for BWH to discuss alternative treatment options with [plaintiff], to take cost into account in determining what treatment to provide, or to refuse to pay for her treatment at another hospital (without interfering with her ability to transfer her care at her own expense).

Thus, the court rejected IIED as a matter of law.

The case is Vacca v. The Brigham & Women's Hospital, Inc., No. 19-P-962 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 21, 2020) (oral argument).  Justice Eric Neyman wrote the unanimous opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Englander and Hand.