Fed court questions TN malpractice law in Iraq vet’s suicide

The case of a widow whose Iraq war veteran husband committed suicide after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs misdiagnosed his post-traumatic stress disorder is testing Tennessee’s stringent medical malpractice laws and highlighting what a federal judge called the laws’ “seemingly unfair” results, reports Jamie Satterfield.

The VA and the James H. Quillen Veterans Administration Medical Center in Mountain Home, Tenn., have conceded Greeneville veteran Scott Walter Eiswert was misdiagnosed and in 2008 committed suicide. The efforts of the National Guardsman’s widow, Tracy Lynn Eiswert, to hold the VA and the Quillen doctors accountable have failed solely because of a few paperwork errors that ran afoul of Tennessee’s medical malpractice laws.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer tossed out Eiswert’s case in 2013, which he called a “seemingly unfair result” of “procedural hurdles” the Tennessee Legislature created over the past few years to make it tougher for residents to sue medical professionals and facilities.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals came to the widow’s rescue earlier this year, questioning whether those laws were indeed as unforgiving as they appeared. The appellate court asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to consider whether the laws required “strict compliance” with no room for error or “substantial compliance” with wiggle room for minor filing mistakes.

In a recently-released opinion, the 6th Circuit revealed the state’s high court refused to answer that question because of at least one other paperwork error Greer did not address in his ruling. Rather than declare defeat for the widow, the 6th Circuit is now sending the case back to Greer — with a twist.

The court is drawing a legal road map for Greer, citing specific cases he should consider that could favor the widow.

“On remand, we note several decisions which may inform the analysis of the unresolved issues,” the opinion stated.

All of those cases were decided by Tennessee’s Supreme Court after the widow’s lawsuit was dismissed and have poked legal holes in the “strict compliance” requirements of the state’s medical malpractice laws.