The Tennessee Supreme Court stumbled and fell recently. It held that the same Tennessee Constitution that says the right to a jury trial shall remain inviolate is not violated when the state legislature takes from the people the right to decide how much an injured plaintiff should be compensated. They simply didn’t trust you and me to be able to properly value a case after hearing all the proof.
But now the Supreme Court has partially redeemed itself. It has held that we can be trusted to call foul when a hospital tries to rip off its patients. The case is Franks v. Sykes and it could curtail a popular practice among hospitals to wring money they are not entitled to out of an injured patient.
The practice goes like this: Mitch is injured in a car wreck and is treated at the hospital. Mitch was responsible enough to have health insurance and expects that his medical treatment will be covered. And it would. But the hospital has negotiated reduced pricing for insurance payments. Not so if the hospital is willing to wait to get paid when the case gets litigated. In that case, the hospital could recover a lot more of its inflated bill. And the hospital conveniently failed to let Mitch in on their plan to take a bigger bite out of his car wreck settlement instead of filing on his health insurance.
“Mitch” in this case was Roy Franks who was treated at a Dyersburg hospital after a car wreck. He filed a lawsuit against the other driver. But when he found out what the hospital was trying to do to him, he filed against the hospital also. His claim against the hospital was based on the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, which says a person injured because of an unfair or deceptive act that affects the conduct of any trade or commerce can sue the wrongdoer for damages.
A hospital is a provider of medical care. But it is also a business. And if they engage in unfair or deceptive practices wearing their business hat, the Consumer Protection Act offers their victim solace.
The Supreme Court did not say that Roy was entitled to recover damages against the hospital. The Court just said that Roy was entitled to his day in court to try and prove that the hospital was deceptive in how they treated him. They said a health care provider, when acting in its business capacity rather than in its professional capacity, is subject to claims under the Consumer Protection Act. And for our Supreme Court, that is an act of redemption.