VIRGINIA: Patients Sue Doctors Under Consumer Law
Claiming to be "victims of a nationwide scam," 30 former patients are suing the Tidewater Psychiatric Institute and its parent companies for allegedly keeping them in mental hospitals "longer than necessary" in order to "drain their insurance coverage," the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports. Each patient is seeking $1.35 million in compensatory damages. The suits, filed in Norfolk Circuit Court, cover eight legal claims, ranging from fraud to negligence. One of the claims "is based on Virginia's 21-year- old Consumer Protection Act," which is raising "tricky questions" about whether health services are covered by the law. In responses filed on March 6, Tidewater Psychiatric Institute (TPI) and its parent companies, national Medical Enterprises and Psychiatric Institutes of America, "deny wrongdoing and say the lawsuits do not give enough details ... against specific individuals" to support the claims. TPI has asked that the lawsuits be "thrown out," insisting that "medical professionals and hospitals are exempt from Virginia's consumer laws."
Right Crime, Wrong Law?
The TPI patients' lawsuits allege "false, misleading or deceptive acts or practices." Such allegations, the defendant companies argue, "are basically medical malpractice cases, and there is already a well-established procedure for suing doctors and hospitals in those kinds of cases." The defendants argue that the Consumer Protection Act is intended to regulate "dealings arising out of trade or commerce associated with business enterprise -- not the rendering of professional services." To support their claim, the defendant companies cite a 1989 Alexandria case in which "a judge said the consumer act does not cover lawyers."
In Spirit And In Letter
The Consumer Protection Act's authors, however, said their intent was "clearly" to include doctors and hospitals. Martin Greenwell, former Norfolk director of consumer protection and a co-author of the law, said, "It was designed to prevent lying, cheating and stealing in the marketplace. I know of no exclusion that would prevent it from being applicable to the medical profession." The law specifically exempts the news media, employment agencies, banks, savings and loan associations and credit unions. Douglas Fredericks, a Norfolk lawyer and the act's other co-author, said the law's "wording appears to apply to doctors and hospitals." The court has not yet set a date for a hearing on the case (Davis, 3/16).