In Specialty Hospital-Gainesville v. Barth, a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal in Florida held a separate cause of action for elder abuse cannot be maintained when the elder abuse claim is based on allegations of medical negligence.

By way of background, Charles Barth developed a deep-tissue pressure ulcer while receiving medical treatment at Select Specialty Hospital-Gainesville (Specialty), a long term acute-care facility. Mr. Barth sued Specialty, alleging that 1) Specialty committed medical malpractice by failing to reposition Mr. Barth or otherwise prevent avoidable ulcers and 2) Specialty abused and neglected Mr. Barth in violation of Florida’s Adult Protective Services Act, Fla. Stat. § 415, et seq.

The trial court denied several motions filed on behalf of Specialty seeking to dismiss Mr. Barth’s abuse and neglect claim. After a two week trial, a jury found Specialty liable for medical malpractice and awarded Mr. Barth $561,748.13. The jury also awarded Mr. Barth $25,000 on his elder abuse claim, finding that Specialty was a caregiver under Fla. Stat. § 415.1111 and that Specialty neglected or abused Mr. Barth by improperly using restraints and failing to respond to Mr. Barth’s calls for medical assistance.

On appeal, Specialty argued that any evidence relative to the improper use of restraints or failing to respond to Mr. Barth’s calls for medical assistance supported Mr. Barth’s claim for medical negligence—not elder abuse. Mr. Barth maintained that the improper use of restraints constituted abuse of a vulnerable adult and not medical negligence.

The panel agreed with Specialty, finding that consistent with the Court’s prior decision in Bohannon v. Shands Teaching Hosp. & Clinics, Inc., 983 So. 2d 717 (Fla. 1st DCA 2008), a claim involving medical negligence cannot be asserted under Fla. Stat. § 415.1111. The panel analyzed the statutory scheme of Fla. Stat. § 415, reasoning that “the entire legislative scheme of chapter 415 is to protect vulnerable adults, not to provide a duplicative remedy for medical malpractice.” While there may be limited circumstances when elder abuse claims involving non-medical abuse or neglect under Fla. Stat. § 415.1111 may be asserted against a healthcare provider, the evidence in this particular case “indicated that the abuse or neglect was directly related to medical services.”

The Court’s decision in Specialty Hospital-Gainesville confirms that claims asserted for both elder abuse and medical negligence involving medical treatment at skilled nursing facilities often involve a complex web of allegations that blur the lines between claims for statutory remedies and medical negligence. However, the complex issues of medical negligence cannot be litigated as a parallel suit under Florida’s Adult Protective Services Act, which was designed to address a completely different type of wrongful conduct.