Ashley W. French, a partner in the firm’s Charleston, WV office, obtained a favorable ruling for healthcare employers in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
Ruling on a matter of first impression in West Virginia, the federal judge ruled in a memorandum opinion that plaintiffs may not recover for emotional distress or punitive damages under the Patient Safety Act.
The Patient Safety Act is a whistleblower statute that generally protects healthcare employees from discrimination or retaliation for reporting unlawful conduct or waste in caring for patients or for advocating for patient services.
The plaintiff sought damages for not only economic loss, but also damages for emotional distress and punitive damages against the healthcare provider employer. The statute is silent on whether emotional distress or punitive damages are available.
Comparing the Patient Safety Act to the West Virginia Whistle-Blower Act, the Court noted that punitive damages are not recoverable under the express provisions of the West Virginia Whistle-Blower statute. Because the Patient Safety Act has the same enforcement language as found under the Whistle-Blower Act, the Court likewise found that punitive damages are not recoverable under the Patient Safety Act. Finding that emotional distress damages without physical trauma are essentially punitive damages, the Court found that emotional distress damages are also not recoverable under the Patient Safety Act.
This is a critical ruling for healthcare employers on an issue of first impression in West Virginia.
If you have any questions about this case or any other employment law issue in West Virginia, please contact Ashley French at firstname.lastname@example.org or (304) 341-0500.