Miss. Supreme Court says UMC doctors protected from private patients’ suits

Published 3:54 pm Friday, May 25, 2007

Faculty physicians at the University of Mississippi Medical Center are protected from lawsuits involving their private patients, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said the work of Dr. W. Mark Meeks, whether at UMC or while seeing private patients at a UMC clinic, is controlled by the hospital and protected from lawsuits.

The family of Merkell M. Fox sued Meeks in 1995 after Fox died while in Meeks’ care.

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It is the second time the lawsuit has been before the Supreme Court.

The case has a long procedural history.

A Hinds County judge initially ruled in 1998 that Meeks was an employee of UMC even while seeing private patients and therefore was immune from the lawsuit. The Supreme Court reversed that decision in 2000.

In 2004, a trial judge ruled Meeks was not an employee of UMC and not protected from lawsuits under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. MTCA controls all lawsuits for negligence brought against the state or local governments and public officials. The law puts limits on damages that can be sought against a governmental body.

The state Court of Appeals in 2004 reversed the trial judge, siding with Meeks and dismissing the lawsuit. The Fox family appealed again to the Supreme Court.

Justice Chuck Easley, writing Thursday for the Supreme Court, said Meeks’ contract with the state allowed Meeks to see patients as a condition of his employment and to supplement his income.

According to the court record, Meeks claimed he treated Fox in a clinic provided by UMC. He said the clinic provided a patient base for eventual teaching cases following the patient’s admission to the hospital. Meeks said the function was a vital part of a working teaching hospital.

The Fox family claimed Meeks was a private contractor and was seeing patients outside his duties as a teaching physician.

Easley said the clinic, by providing clinical patient services, was carrying out state governmental activities on behalf of UMC, which had an interest in operation of the outpatient clinic as an extension of its teaching and training new physicians.

“This court has held that the fact that physicians employed by UMC generate additional income does not alter their status as employees, and this arrangement makes it possible to hire and retain skilled doctors to serve as instructors at UMC,” Easley said.

Presiding Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., in a dissent joined by three other judges, said Meeks was not in a teaching capacity or treating an indigent patient when he saw Fox. That, Diaz said, separated Meeks from the umbrella of UMC and its lawsuit protections.

“Additionally, Fox sought out Dr. Meeks after he was referred by a neighbor. Because Fox was not assigned to Dr. Meeks, there was a private physician-patient relationship.

“Finally, Fox’s daughter stated that his medical bills were paid by a combination of Medicare and other private supplemental heath insurance. Therefore, Fox was a ‘private-pay’ patient,” Diaz said.