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Wilson v. University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C.

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 15, 2017

Lisa Wilson
v.
University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C., et al.

         Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-17-900522)

          SHAW, JUSTICE.

         Lisa Wilson, the plaintiff below, appeals from the dismissal of her complaint seeking damages against the defendants, University of Alabama Health Services Foundation, P.C. ("UAHSF"); Carla Falkson, M.D.; Tina Wood, M.D.; Ravi Kumar Paluri, M.D.; and Mollie DeShazo, M.D., based on the tort of outrage. We reverse and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In February 2017, Wilson sued UAHSF and its employees, Dr. Falkson, Dr. Wood, Dr. Paluri, and Dr. DeShazo (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the doctors"), in the Jefferson Circuit Court. Wilson's complaint alleged that, in late 2011, her elderly mother, Elizabeth Monk Wilson ("Elizabeth"), was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for colon cancer. According to Wilson, before the onset of Elizabeth's illness, Elizabeth had executed an advanced health-care directive that "instruct[ed] ... caregivers to use all available means to preserve [Elizabeth's] life" and further named Wilson as Elizabeth's health-care proxy "in the event [Elizabeth] became 'too sick to speak for' herself."

         Elizabeth subsequently suffered a recurrence of her cancer. In August 2015, she was admitted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, a facility operated by UAHSF. In her complaint, Wilson alleged that, while Elizabeth was in the hospital, she was treated by the doctors. She further alleged that the doctors made numerous and repeated tactless comments to Elizabeth and Wilson about Elizabeth's condition and her impending death, and to the effect that she was wasting resources by being in the hospital instead of dying at home. The complaint provides a long, extremely detailed discussion of countless alleged egregious statements made to Elizabeth and Wilson and numerous altercations between Wilson and Elizabeth, on the one hand, and the doctors, on the other. We see no need to repeat those allegations here. The complaint further details the alleged physical and mental distress experienced by both Elizabeth and Wilson in response to the doctors' alleged conduct.

         Based on the foregoing, Wilson's complaint alleged a single claim for damages "for the tort of outrage, and for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress"[1] and sought compensatory and punitive damages. Wilson sought to hold UAHSF vicariously liable for the alleged conduct of the doctors, which conduct, she alleged, occurred within the line and scope of the doctors' employment with UAHSF.

         In response, UAHSF and the doctors jointly moved to dismiss Wilson's complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Ala. R. Civ. P. More specifically, in addition to denying that the conduct Wilson attributed to them had ever occurred, they argued that Alabama law recognizes the tort of outrage only in certain narrowly defined circumstances not applicable in the instant case. See Callens v. Jefferson Cty. Nursing Home, 769 So.2d 273, 281 (Ala. 2000). They further argued that this Court has repeatedly rejected the expansion of the tort of outrage to encompass "alleged extreme behavior in the healthcare context." See, e.g., Grantham v. Vanderzyl, 802 So.2d 1077 (Ala. 2001); Callens, supra; and Gallups v. Cotter, 534 So.2d 585, 588 (Ala. 1988). Thus, according to UAHSF and the doctors, Wilson's claim was unsupported by Alabama law and represented an "attempt to expand the scope of [the] tort" and, therefore, failed to state a claim as a matter of law.

         The trial court dismissed the action, stating:

"In considering the defendants' motion, the court regards the allegations in the complaint as true. Those allegations paint a picture of egregious misconduct. The Alabama Supreme Court, however, has made clear that the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, or outrage, is limited to three situations, none of which applies here. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to expand that tort's applicability to the circumstances presented here."

         Wilson appeals.

         Standard of Review

"'In Nance v. Matthews, 622 So.2d 297 (Ala. 1993), this Court stated the standard of review applicable to a ruling on a motion to dismiss:
"'"On appeal, a dismissal is not entitled to a presumption of correctness. The appropriate standard of review under Rule 12(b)(6)[, Ala. R. Civ. P., ] is whether, when the allegations of the complaint are viewed most strongly in the pleader's favor, it appears that the pleader could prove any set of circumstances that would entitle [it] to relief. In making this determination, this Court does not consider whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but only whether [it] may possibly prevail. We note that a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal is proper only when it appears ...

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