Northwest General Hosp. v. Yee

Decision Date01 November 1983
Docket NumberNo. 82-617,82-617
Citation115 Wis.2d 59,339 N.W.2d 583
PartiesNORTHWEST GENERAL HOSPITAL, Plaintiff, Lillie Griffin, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellant-Petitioner, v. Dr. Jerry N. YEE, Third-Party Defendant-Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

Burton A. Strnad, Milwaukee (argued), for petitioner; Paul F. Poehlmann and Burton A. Strnad, S.C., Milwaukee, on brief.

Timothy J. Strattner, Brookfield (argued), for respondent; Schellinger & Doyle, S.C., Brookfield, on brief.

CECI, Justice.

This is a review of a court of appeals decision 1 which affirmed the judgment of the circuit court for Milwaukee county, Honorable Marvin C. Holz, Circuit Judge. The question for review by this court is whether a malpractice claim which alleges no bodily injury and arises by reason of a third-party complaint must be submitted to a ch. 655, Stats., patients compensation panel.

On May 11, 1978, the third-party plaintiff, Lillie Griffin (Griffin), was injured in an automobile accident. Dr. Jerry N. Yee (Dr. Yee), the third-party defendant in this case, treated Griffin for these injuries, prescribing hospitalization as part of his treatment procedures. Griffin was hospitalized at Northwest General Hospital from May 17, 1978, until June 24, 1978, and consequently incurred a debt to the hospital, arising from Dr. Yee's prescription, of $5,484.40.

On March 19, 1981, Northwest General Hospital commenced an action against Griffin for the debt she had incurred to the hospital during her stay. Griffin subsequently filed a third-party complaint against Dr. Yee on August 25, 1981, alleging that his treatment of her through extensive hospitalized care was unreasonable, unnecessary, and negligent and because of this, Dr. Yee should be held at least partially accountable for the debt she owed to Northwest General Hospital. Dr. Yee answered and moved to dismiss the third-party complaint, based upon the grounds that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations.

The circuit court interpreted Griffin's complaint as alleging malpractice on the part of Dr. Yee and stated that although no bodily injury was alleged by Griffin, unnecessary treatment and hospitalization amounted to an interference with the person and constituted a personal injury. Therefore, the circuit court concluded that Griffin should have submitted her claim to a ch. 655 patients compensation panel because her third-party complaint against Dr. Yee was clearly within the chapter's purview. Consequently, the circuit court dismissed Griffin's complaint against the doctor, holding that it did not have jurisdiction over the claim. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. We reverse the court of appeals.

Initially, we would like to stress that this court and other jurisdictions have found unnecessary and improper treatment to constitute malpractice. 2 Kuechler v. Volgmann, 180 Wis. 238, 192 N.W. 1015 (1923), and Hood v. Phillips, 537 S.W.2d 291 (Tex.Civ.App.1976). Therefore, if the instant case centered solely around the issue of unnecessary treatment, ch. 655 would clearly apply to Griffin's claim. However, we are also faced here with the complicating factors that Griffin has not alleged any bodily injury or aggravation of an existing injury due to Dr. Yee's negligence, nor was this case initiated as a malpractice claim against the doctor. Rather, it arose from a contract action between Northwest General Hospital as plaintiff and Griffin as defendant.

Generally, no court action for injuries arising from a medical malpractice claim may be brought until the matter has been reviewed by a ch. 655 patients compensation panel. Section 655.04(1)(b), Stats.; State ex rel. Strykowski v. Wilkie, 81 Wis.2d 491, 261 N.W.2d 434 (1978). The dispute in this case arises from an apparent inconsistency in the statutes of ch. 655. The inconsistency centers around the meaning of the terms "injury" and "bodily injury" as utilized within the chapter. Section 655.007, entitled, "Patients' claims," provides:

"[A]ny patient or the patient's representative, having a claim for injury or death on account of malpractice is subject to this chapter." (Emphasis added.)

Section 655.04(1)(a), Stats., reads:

"[A]ny patient or the patient's representative, having a claim under this chapter for bodily injury or death, on account of a tort or breach of contract based upon professional services rendered or which should have been rendered by a health care provider, may, ... file a submission of controversy with the director in accordance with this chapter...." (Emphasis added.)

Griffin asserts that because section 655.04, utilizes the term "bodily injury," her claim against Dr. Yee for unreasonable and unnecessary treatment is clearly outside the purview of the chapter, because she has in fact alleged no bodily injury.

Because of the references to "injury" and "bodily injury," there appears to be an ambiguity within ch. 655, since it may be interpreted in two different ways by well-informed persons. In Matter of Athans, 107 Wis.2d 331, 335, 320 N.W.2d 30 (Ct.App.1982). Chapter 655 may be viewed as applying only to those claims which allege actual bodily injury, or it may be viewed as applying to any claims against a health care provider for a legally recognized injury. The rule of statutory construction is that the primary source for the construction is the statutory language itself. State v. Derenne, 102 Wis.2d 38, 45, 306 N.W.2d 12 (1981). In this case, the ambiguity arises from the interaction of the separate statutes within the chapter. Thus, because the entire chapter is in pari materia, all of ch. 655 should be examined together. Wis. Environmental Decade v. Public Service Comm., 81 Wis.2d 344, 350, 260 N.W.2d 712 (1978). However, examining all of ch. 655 leads us only to conclude that the terms are indeed ambiguous, since they are defined nowhere else within the chapter. As this court noted in Wis. Environmental Decade, when such an ambiguity is found:

"... it is permissible to look to the legislative intent, which is to be found in the language of the statute in relation to its scope, history, context, subject matter and object intended to be accomplished." Id.

The legislative intent underlying ch. 655's enactment has been set forth in ch. 37, section 1, Laws of 1975. The findings enacted by the legislature include an increased number of malpractice suits and a resulting increase in the size and number of awards from these suits, as well as a rise in malpractice insurance premiums and numerous other side effects associated with these factors. 3 This court has also looked to the legislative intent in past decisions. In State ex rel. Strykowski v. Wilkie, 81 Wis.2d 491, 261 N.W.2d 434, this court noted an additional factor behind the enactment of ch. 655:

"[R]esolution of a malpractice claim under the traditional tort litigation process has been found to require an average of nineteen months. A patients compensation panel, on the other hand, must render a decision within 150 days after the submission of controversy is filed." Id. at 508, 261 N.W.2d 434 (footnote omitted).

In Mortenson v. Miller, 99 Wis.2d 209, 298 N.W.2d 546 (1980), this court reaffirmed the above-stated reasons behind the enactment of the chapter.

It appears clear to us that when the legislature enacted ch. 655, it contemplated a procedure which would protect health care providers and patients from the hazards of the traditional, lengthy tort litigation. We also believe that the purpose behind the chapter was to mandate submission of malpractice claims alleging a bodily injury from the health care provider's negligence to the patients compensation panel. This is evidenced by the Strykowski court's comparison of the Worker's Compensation Act and ch. 655 and the following language:

"Like the Workmen's Compensation Act, [ch. 655] applies only to a limited class of injured persons. Both laws modify the common law procedures for redress of personal injuries." State ex rel. Strykowski v. Wilkie, 81 Wis.2d at 509, 261 N.W.2d 434.

For worker's compensation purposes, Black's Law Dictionary defines "personal injury" as "any harm or damage to the health of an employee." Black's Law Dictionary 707 (5th ed. 1979). Thus, it seems clear to us that the legislature contemplated that ch. 655 claims would involve some "harm or damage to the health" of a patient. We believe that this is further supported by the language of section 655.04 referring to "bodily injury."

We also find support for our position in the language utilized in conjunction with the ambiguous terms. Sections 655.007 and 655.04, respectively, refer to "injury or death" and "bodily injury or death." As we stated above, the statutory language itself is the primary source for statutory construction. State v. Derenne, 102 Wis.2d 38, 306 N.W.2d 12. In State ex rel. Tilkins v. Board of Trustees, 253 Wis. 371, 373, 34 N.W.2d 248 (1948), this court stated, "In determining the meaning of any single phrase of a statute it is necessary to look at it in the light of the whole of the statute." Since the words "injury" and "death" are used together, we conclude that the legislature intended injury to refer to those injuries involving actual bodily harm, and not simply to any legally recognized injury.

Further, the payment scheme under ch. 655 supports this position. Section 655.015 provides for the delayed disbursement of future medical expense awards of greater than $25,000. As the Strykowski opinion stated, "This procedure was obviously intended for the benefit of the claimant with substantial injuries requiring long-term treatment." State ex rel. Strykowski v. Wilkie, 81 Wis.2d at 510, 261 N.W.2d 434. (Emphasis added.) Thus, it appears clear to us that the legislature had bodily injuries requiring future treatments in mind when it...

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    ...¶ 17 According to Acuity, the circumstances of its claim are analogous to those of the patient's claim in Northwest General Hospital v. Yee, 115 Wis.2d 59, 339 N.W.2d 583 (1983). Yee arose out of a contract action brought by a hospital against a patient to collect for medical services. Id. ......
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