A 25-foot fall off rocks is considered medical malpractice
SALT LAKE CITY (Legal Newsline) – “Wilderness therapy” like rock-climbing can be considered health care for the purposes of litigation, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.
Asked by a federal appeals court whether an injury that took place during a hike can be subject to rules governing medical malpractice lawsuits, the court on July 9 said yes. In the lawsuit at issue, a wilderness therapy company employed a health care provider who prescribed hiking, wildness experiences and learning outdoor survival skills as part of a therapeutic treatment plan.
It was a win for defendant Wingate Wilderness Therapy. It said plaintiff Jacob Scott missed the Malpractice Act’s statute of limitations by waiting more than two years after his 18th birthday to sue for injuries sustained climbing rocks during a hike when he was 17.
Wingate provides behavioral, substance abuse and mental health services to minors. Scott’s injury occurred during prescribed outdoor therapy, during which he and other “patients” asked to climb a 70-foot tall rock formation.
The supervising staff member provided no climbing gear, training or physical assistance. Scott made it to the top but had trouble making it back down. He slipped in snow 25 feet up and fell the rest of the way, shattering his left knee.
His lawsuit alleged negligence on the part of Wingate and its staff in allowing him to climb the formation in the first place, especially without gear or training.
But Wingate, in federal court, asserted it was a health care provider and that Scott had failed to file his lawsuit within the two-year statute of limitations contained in the Malpractice Act. Scott appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit asked the Utah Supreme Court for clarity on the issue.
Scott’s injuries arose “relating to or arising out of” his treatment, as the Malpractice Act says, the court ruled. It rejected hypotheticals from Scott’s lawyers like a patient falling in a hospital hallway on a puddle of soda.
“We reject Jacob’s argument that the hike and wilderness therapy component of Wingate’s program cannot be deemed ‘health care’ because it was operated by Wingate’s field staff who lack ‘medical licenses’ and ‘exercised no professional medical judgment when they allowed Jacob to climb’ the rock formation.