Can physicians sue a patient who originally took them to court for malpractice, but then dismissed the case? This was the issue recently decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The case involved a female patient who went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) for placement of a port-a-cath. After the procedure, the patient was notified by her physician that he noticed a guide wire had been left in a vein leading to her heart. The physician believed that the guide wire had been left during a previous procedure at Williamson Medical Center the year before.  

The patient filed a lawsuit against the two physicians who had performed the procedure at Williamson Medical Center, alleging negligence. Both physicians denied liability. A year later, a physician at VUMC informed the patient that it was actually VUMC that was responsible for the presence of the guide wire.

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The patient withdrew her complaint against the original two physicians, and the trial court judge dismissed the case. The patient then sued VUMC, and the parties to that case eventually reached a settlement.

The original two physicians, however, were not happy with having been sued and filed a complaint against the patient alleging that her prior lawsuit against them constituted malicious prosecution and abuse of process.

The patient moved for summary judgment, a procedural device used during civil litigation to promptly dismiss litigation without a trial, claiming that the physicians could not prove essential elements of either claim. Procedural device is used when there is no dispute as to the material facts of the case, and the party is clearly entitled to judgment when the law is applied to those facts.

The trial court denied the patient’s motion, as did the Court of Appeals. However, the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court held that in order for physicians to prevail in a trial for malicious prosecution, they would have to prove that the patient instituted the original lawsuit without probable cause, with malice and that the prior suit was ended in favor of the physicians.

The Court held that the patient’s voluntary withdrawal of the case could not be considered a “favorable termination” for the purposes of the malicious prosecution claim, and dismissed the case against the patient.