A judge dismissed one of 48 class-action lawsuits on file against hospitals nationwide on behalf of uninsured patients, ruling that the charges had previously been tried in state court and that a foundation of the suit -- the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act -- did not apply. It was the first dismissal not requested by plaintiffs in the series of suits filed by a coalition of law firms led by attorney Richard Scruggs of Oxford, Miss. The suit against nine-hospital Baptist Health System, Birmingham, Ala., and the American Hospital Association was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins in Birmingham.
Plaintiffs had already lost in state court before the class-action suit was filed, and the federal court cannot rule again on the charges under the legal concept res judicata, the judge said. She rejected the contention that EMTALA still applied to the case because of continued collection efforts and other ongoing activities, ruling that the two-year time limit on EMTALA charges had passed. Emerson Hopkins also said the case did not qualify as a personal injury suit under EMTALA because the plaintiffs had not suffered physical harm as a result of Baptist's actions, a requirement in Alabama.
Ty Cobb, an attorney who assisted the AHA with its case, said the uninsured suits may never reach trial between Emerson Hopkins' ruling and Wednesday's refusal by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to consolidate several of the cases. "It's highly likely most of these cases will go off in motions to dismiss," Cobb said. The plaintiffs, though, said the panel's ruling indicates that the Alabama decision may not apply to other cases. "It would be inappropriate to speculate on whether (the judge's interpretation of EMTALA) applies to other cases. The issues and facts are different," said Robert Siegfried, a spokesman for the coalition of law firms. Meanwhile, Emerson Hopkins' point about res judicata "was a technical decision," Siegfried said. -- by Paul Barr