Christus Health Gulf Coast v. Carswell, 14–0362

CourtSupreme Court of Texas
Citation505 S.W.3d 528
Docket NumberNO. 14–0362,14–0362
Parties CHRISTUS HEALTH GULF COAST (As an Entity, d/b/a CHRISTUS St. Catherine Hospital, and Formerly d/b/a CHRISTUS St. Joseph Hospital), Petitioner and Cross–Respondent v. Linda CARSWELL, Respondent and Cross–Petitioner
Decision Date20 May 2016

505 S.W.3d 528

CHRISTUS HEALTH GULF COAST (As an Entity, d/b/a CHRISTUS St. Catherine Hospital, and Formerly d/b/a CHRISTUS St. Joseph Hospital), Petitioner and Cross–Respondent
Linda CARSWELL, Respondent and Cross–Petitioner

NO. 14–0362

Supreme Court of Texas.

Argued November 13, 2015

505 S.W.3d 530

Randall Shirres Richardson, Robert J. Swift, Warren Szutse Huang, Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, Houston, TX, for Petitioner.

Carl D. Shaw, Shaw Law, David W. Holman, The Holman Law Firm PC, James C. Marrow, Jennifer Bruch Hogan, Richard P. Hogan Jr., Hogan & Hogan, Neil C. McCabe, The McCabe Law Firm, Houston TX, Michael L. O'Brien, Mike O'Brien, P.C., Washington TX, for Respondent.

JUSTICE JOHNSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This matter originated as a claim that CHRISTUS St. Catherine Hospital and others committed medical malpractice causing a patient to die in the hospital. The pleadings were eventually amended to add claims that the hospital took post-mortem actions to cover up the malpractice, including failing to properly notify the county medical examiner of the patient's death and improperly obtaining the widow's consent for a private autopsy. The jury did not find against the hospital on the malpractice claim, but found that it improperly obtained the widow's consent and awarded damages on that claim.

Among the issues presented is whether claims that the hospital improperly obtained approval from the decedent's widow for a private autopsy were health care liability claims. The trial court concluded they were not. It rendered judgment on the verdict as to that claim and included in the judgment monetary sanctions previously assessed against the hospital for pretrial discovery abuse. The court of appeals affirmed as to the damages award but reduced the amount of prejudgment interest and vacated the discovery sanctions.

We address only three issues because they are dispositive: (1) were the claims based on the hospital's post-mortem actions health care liability claims; (2) if so, were they barred by limitations because they were not asserted until over three years after the operative facts took place; and (3) did the court of appeals err by reversing and rendering as to the discovery sanctions. We answer, respectively, Yes, Yes, and No. Based on those answers, we reverse in part, affirm in part, and render judgment for the hospital.

I. Background

Jerry Carswell was admitted to CHRISTUS St. Catherine Hospital in Katy on January 19, 2004, complaining of severe pain in his right side. His attending physician, Dr. Paul Cook, prescribed narcotics to help with the pain, but Carswell reacted adversely to them and they were discontinued. Late in the evening of January 21 and the early morning of January 22, Carswell began experiencing severe pain again. Dr. Cook's associate, Dr. Christina Pramudji, prescribed pain medication, which the hospital nurses administered early in the morning of January 22. Later that morning, Carswell was found lying across his bed unresponsive and without a pulse. Emergency code procedures were initiated, but attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Because of the circumstances, Dr. Pramudji directed that a complete autopsy be performed.

Hospital personnel called Carswell's wife, Linda, and asked her to come to the hospital. When she arrived with her adult son, Jordan, Dr. Pramudji and Nurse Lee Anne Lightfoot told them that Carswell had passed away. Linda testified that she asked several people at the hospital what happened but was unable to find anyone who would give her more details about her husband's death than that he died in his sleep.

505 S.W.3d 531

Upon hearing of Carswell's death, Barbara Lazor, the director of acute care services at St. Catherine, went to Carswell's room to speak with Linda. According to Linda, she told Lazor she wanted an autopsy because she wanted to know what happened; she wanted the autopsy performed somewhere other than at St. Catherine, such as at the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office (HCMEO); and Lazor said St. Catherine would contact the HCMEO. Lazor, on the other hand, testified that although she offered condolences to Linda, they did not discuss an autopsy; by the time Lazor arrived at the hospital that morning, the HCMEO had already been contacted; and she neither contacted the HCMEO nor was involved in obtaining Linda's consent for the autopsy. According to Linda, Nurse Patricia Elam said that the HCMEO did not take the case and would not be performing an autopsy or investigating. Linda testified that based on Elam's statement, she signed a Consent for Postmortem Procedures form provided by the nurses and checked the box for a complete autopsy with no restrictions. The form authorized doctors performing the autopsy to remove, test, and retain organs or tissues from the body.

Carswell's autopsy was performed at St. Joseph Hospital, a CHRISTUS facility, as was specified on the consent form. Dr. Jeffrey Terrel, a member of SJ Associated Pathologists, L.C., an independent group of pathologists that contracted with St. Joseph to do autopsies, performed it. Dr. Terrel was provided with Carswell's medical records, including the consent form signed by Linda and a blood sample taken from Carswell during the emergency code procedure (code blood). He testified that it was within his discretion as the physician pathologist to determine what needed to be done during the autopsy. One decision he made was that toxicology screening would not be performed on the code blood based on Carswell's medical history as documented in the medical records. Dr. Terrel issued a preliminary autopsy report on January 26, 2004. However, he needed to perform more tissue testing before he could issue a final report, so he retained approximately one-third of Carswell's heart for further study. Dr. Terrel testified that he was not required to, nor did he, notify anyone that he retained some of Carswell's tissues.

After she received the preliminary report, Linda was not satisfied that it showed the true cause of her husband's death and directed the hospital to preserve the autopsy specimens for further consideration. Dr. Terrel interpreted Linda's instructions as requiring him to stop testing tissue he had retained because testing would have destroyed portions of it. As a result, and without fully completing the autopsy, he submitted "anatomic findings" to Dr. Cook so Dr. Cook could determine the cause of death. Although Dr. Cook listed the manner of death on the death certificate as "natural," Linda testified that when she spoke with him about the death certificate he seemed unsure of the cause of death.

On June 7, 2005, Linda, individually and as representative of Carswell's estate, together with her adult sons Robert and Jordan (collectively, the Carswells), sued CHRISTUS Health and CHRISTUS Health Gulf Coast doing business as CHRISTUS St. Catherine Hospital. Their pleading was short and direct. It alleged that they previously provided notice to the defendants "pursuant to Tex. Civ. Stat. Ann. § 74.051, (2004), that Plaintiffs intended to assert a health care liability claim arising out of the medical care rendered to Jerry Carswell." The pleading outlined as "Facts" that Carswell was admitted to and treated in St. Catherine

505 S.W.3d 532

until he was found unresponsive at 5:15 a.m. on January 22, at which time it was "too late." The petition alleged that "This action arises out of the medical malpractice committed by CHRISTUS that ultimately resulted in the death of Jerry L. Carswell on January 22, 2004," and set out acts and omissions of the hospital that were allegedly "medical negligence, which proximately led to the death of Jerry L. Carswell." Finally, the petition alleged "that the Defendants' conduct and omissions constituted, among other things, medical malpractice, negligence, gross negligence, negligence per se, malice, fraud, and breach of express and implied warranties and breach of contract." The damages sought were those accruing up until, and resulting from, Carswell's death. There was no mention in the pleadings of post-mortem conduct or omissions, except for references to attempts to resuscitate Carswell.

On March 21, 2006, the Carswells filed a First Amended Original Petition in which they added Drs. Pramudji and Cook as defendants, along with their practice group, Memorial Urology Associates, P.A. The Carswells continued to assert that "This action arises out of the medical malpractice committed by all Defendants that ultimately resulted in the death of Jerry L. Carswell on January 22, 2004." The Carswells filed a Second Amended Original Petition on October 31, 2006, naming the same plaintiffs and defendants. The petition expanded the allegations of negligence, but continued to specify that the family's claims were for medical malpractice that proximately caused Carswell's death.

On January 5, 2007, almost three years after Carswell's death, the Carswells filed their Third Amended Original Petition, which included, for the first time, allegations of conduct by hospital nurses and employees that occurred after Carswell's death and claims of damages from that conduct. The pleadings had sections entitled "VI. Medical Malpractice Facts," "VII. Wrongful Death and...

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