Lawsuit Alleging Fatal Restraint By Hospital Staff May Proceed, Texas Supreme Court Rules

By Jim Sams | April 20, 2021

A lawsuit that charges staffers at a Texas psychiatric hospital with violating a patient’s civil rights must comply with a state law that requires plaintiffs to submit expert reports after filing health care liability claims, even though no medical malpractice is alleged, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Ordinarily, the lawsuit would be dismissed because no report was served by the statutory deadline, but the high court allowed the case to proceed “in the interest of justice.” Plaintiff’s attorney Katie P. Klein said she considers that a victory.

“It looks like a 9-0 opinion and we have an extremely conservative court,” she said. “The fact that they have an issued an opinion that allows a plaintiff’s case to move forward is very significant.”

The opinion, written by Justice Rebeca Aizpuru Huddle, makes no mention of any dissent. The high court reversed a judgment by the state Court of Appeals that found no expert report was required because the lawsuit was not a health care liability claim.

David Bagley filed the lawsuit after his 37-year-old son, Jeremiah Bagley, died after being restrained by psychiatric nurse assistants and injected with an anti-psychotic drug and a sedative at the Rio Grande State Center in Harlingen. An autopsy revealed Jeremiah had several fractured vertebrae, cracked ribs, a lacerated spleen, and contusions on his head, shoulders, back, and chest. An autopsy listed the cause of death as “excited delirium due to psychosis with restraint-associated blunt force trauma.”

The lawsuit names the Rio Grande State Center and 10 of its employees as defendants. Bagley dropped the suit against the state hospital after the issue of the report required by the Texas Medical Liability Act arose, but the doctors and other staffers who cared for Jeremiah remained parties to the suit.

Klein, with Dale & Klein in McAllen, said hospital administrators admitted during depositions that their staffers had acted improperly.

“He probably struck someone and everybody got mad and they jumped him,” she said. “He had four or five people on him, which was not permitted.”

The Texas Medical Liability Act requires plaintiffs who file lawsuits asserting health care liabilityto file an expert report addressing liability and causation within 120 days of receiving an answerfrom the defendant. Bagley did not submit a report because his attorneys did not consider his case to be a health care liability claim, Klein said.

She argued that even if the courts chose to treat the lawsuit as a malpractice case, the Texas statute governing such claims was preempted by US Code Section 183, which allows individuals to sue state governments and state employees for civil rights violations.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Bagley’s attorneys that Texas malpractice law is preempted by Section 183, but the Supreme Court disagreed.

The court said in its opinion that all of Bagley’s claims are based on the departure from accepted standards of health care. The court said while federal law does prevail if there is any conflict with state law, the expert-report requirement did not deny Bagley any substantive right. He would have had to present expert testimony in order to prove his claims anyway.

“All of Bagley’s claims allege a departure from accepted standards of health care or safety,” the court said.

Klein said submitting an expert report in this case will not be a problem. “We feel confident,” she said.

Attorneys for the hospital and medical providers could not be reached for comment.

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