Did the trial court err in ruling that a case involving suicide prevention protocols in a jail medical unit was outside the scope of the MPLA and, therefore, was not subject to the MPLA’s presuit requirements?
Cody Lawrence Grove was incarcerated in the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg. At some point he was moved to the medical unit of the jail, where he committed suicide. Respondent, as administrator of Grove’s estate, sued the Regional Jail Authority alleging deprivation of constitutional rights, negligent supervision, training and retention, together with other legal claims. Thereafter, Respondent filed an amended complaint joining Petitioner, Primecare Medical of West Virginia. Respondent alleged that in the course of discovery it was learned that Petitioner was under contract with the Regional Jail Authority to operate its medical unit and that Petitioner itself was guilty of negligence causing or contributing to Grove’s suicide.
After being duly served, Petitioner filed a motion to dismiss alleging that Respondent had failed to comply with the presuit requirements for medical malpractice cases as codified in the MPLA, W.Va. Code 55-7B-1 et seq. Petitioner also alleged that the claims were time barred under the applicable statute of limitations. The circuit court ordered Respondent to comply with the MPLA by filing a notice and a certificate of merit. Respondent did so, but the notice stated simply that Petitioner had failed to comply with suicide prevention protocols. Claiming that the notice was insufficient under the MPLA, Petitioner objected. The circuit court disagreed, finding that the issues involving suicide prevention protocols did not require expert testimony and were, therefore, exempt from the MPLA requirements. Petitioner now seeks relief via a writ of prohibition.
Petitioner insists that Respondent’s claims are “based on allegations sounding in medical negligence.” Therefore, the requirements of the MPLA must be applied.
W.Va. Code 55-7B-6(c) provides an exception in cases involving a “well-established legal theory of liability which does not require expert testimony supporting a breach of the applicable standard of care.” Here, however, Petitioner cites three reasons why the exception does not apply in this case: (1) Respondent did not file the necessary presuit notice under the exception, (2) even the notice Respondent did provide was factually deficient, and (3) in any event, the exception does not apply because the issues involving suicide prevention protocols are, in fact, medical in nature.
Respondent argues that the delay in joining Petitioner as a party and in filing the MPLA notice was a result of the unique circumstances of the case—i.e., learning of Petitioner’s role in the jail through discovery. Importantly, there is no prejudice: “This timing has caused no prejudice to Petitioner, Petitioner has not claimed prejudice, and Petitioner cannot demonstrate any prejudice.” Regarding the nature of the claim, Respondent denies that it has any medical aspect to it: “Failure to keep [Groves] safe so as to avoid the deprivation of his constitutional rights…has nothing to do with medical negligence. All Petitioner had to do was watch [Groves] and prevent his suicide.”
This is a Rule 19 case. Therefore, we do not expect to see a new syllabus point. However, the scope of the exception under W.Va. Code 55-7B-6(c) is important to medical malpractice litigators. Having another case explaining how the exception should be applied will definitely be a benefit to both bench and bar.