Birmingham News

The state Supreme Court has reversed its ruling from last year and decided that state-employed doctors may be sued for malpractice.

In issuing the decision Friday, the court also laid out conditions under which all state employees could face lawsuits in their jobs.

The court withdrew a Nov. 24, 1999, ruling that gave state-employed doctors the same immunity from lawsuits that protected all state employees while they were working.

In its new 6-2 decision, the court said state-employed doctors could be sued and, for that matter, so could all state employees under some circumstances.

The court issued guidelines saying a state employee was often protected from lawsuits while carrying out official duties but could be sued for acting “willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law.”

The decision was written in response to a lawsuit filed by the father of a University of Alabama student, Matthew Cranman of Savannah, Ga.. who died in November 1997 after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.

The lawsuit, filed against four doctors, claimed that Cranman was treated for 15 months at Russell Student Health Center before his cancer was discovered. The case never went to a jury because a judge ruled that the doctors were immune from lawsuits.

The Cranman case was eventually combined with four other medical malpractice cases that had been dismissed on the same grounds and appealed to the Supreme Court.

David Wirtes Jr., a lawyer from Mobile who argued the cases before the Supreme Court, said the new ruling was an “extraordinary result.” He said it clears up a “hodgepodge of decisions” about the immunity of state employees from lawsuits.

“For the first time we have clear guidance,” he said.

A brief submitted by lawyer S. Greg Burge of Birmingham on behalf of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association strongly urged the court to rethink its November decision.

“This is a hugely significant decision as far as health care in Alabama,” Burge said Monday. If the court hadn’t reversed itself, the state would have been left with a legally inconsistent system involving medical malpractice, he said.

For instance, virtually all the employees of the University of Alabama at Birmingham would have been immune from lawsuit. “If an orderly ran over you in the hallway with a cart, he would have been immune,” Burge said. Meanwhile, virtually all employees at private hospitals would have been open to lawsuits, he said.

Under the new ruling, the state is still immune from lawsuits, but individual state employees aren’t, Burge said.

W. Stancil Starnes, a Birmingham lawyer who represented defendants in the case before the Supreme Court, said he will ask for another rehearing.

“The Supreme Court of Alabama is deserving of great respect, and the opinion deserves further study,” he said, but added, “It’s apparent that an unfortunate and unintended consequence will be physicians at our medical schools will have to look after patients with one eye on the courthouse.”

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