When Is an Assault Not an Assault? When It’s Medical Malpractice!

When Is an Assault Not an Assault? When It’s Medical Malpractice!

A legal complaint is often creatively drafted to encompass as many legal theories as possible in order to cast a wide net over potential defendants, but more does not always mean better! A recent Pennsylvania case demonstrated the importance of doing a more thorough evaluation before moving forward with a complaint. In this case, a plaintiff filed an assault claim against emergency medical personnel, and the Third Circuit stated that “artful” pleading was not a substitute for the requirements of the Rules of Civil Procedure in medical malpractice cases.


Factual Background

Thomas Sutton (“Sutton”), a disabled veteran, presented at a local clinic in Fayette County for medical treatment.[i] The nurse practitioner on duty determined Sutton’s elevated heart rate required he be transported to a local hospital for observation and additional medical care.[ii]  Sutton refused additional treatment, stating his condition did not rise to the level requiring emergency care or hospitalization.[iii] The nurse practitioner and staff then contacted local emergency personnel from Fayette EMS.[iv] Upon arrival, Fayette EMS restrained and sedated Sutton and transported him to a local hospital against his will and without his consent.[v] Once Sutton was at the hospital, he was admitted as a patient and remained there for two days.[vi]


Procedural Background

Sutton filed a complaint alleging false imprisonment, assault and battery, and civil rights violations against the parties involved.[vii] Fayette EMS moved to dismiss, which the trial court granted, but Sutton appealed the ruling.[viii]

In its motion to dismiss, Fayette EMS argued Sutton’s averments, while alleging the intentional tort of false imprisonment and assault and battery, were actually based in medical malpractice.[ix] As such, the complaint was insufficient as it lacked a certificate of merit as required by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.[x] In Pennsylvania, a certificate of merit is required in all medical malpractice cases.[xi] The certificate of merit must indicate that “an appropriate licensed professional” has provided a statement that there is a “reasonable probability that the care, skill or knowledge exercised or exhibited,” was “outside acceptable professional standards and that such conduct was a cause in bringing about the harm.”[xii] The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated the certificate of merit is used to “nip unsubstantiated threats in the bud.”[xiii]


Appellate Ruling

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s determination that Fayette EMS’s relationship with Sutton was professional and based on medical knowledge beyond the scope an average person might have.[xiv] Accordingly, when a matter relates to treatment by a medical provider, then the matter is a professional negligence action requiring a certificate of merit.[xv] The court will “consider the substance of a plaintiff’s claims rather than their form to ensure that the plaintiff does not escape the requirements of [filing a certificate of merit] through artful pleading.”[xvi]



 While it is not unusual for a plaintiff to creatively draft a complaint, it is key to review the pleading with an eye for the underlying substance of the claims. In this matter, Sutton’s complaint had a fatal flaw in that it attempted to file a medical malpractice claim masquerading as an intentional tort. Sometimes, the careful review of the initial pleadings and the insightful application of defensive thinking can stop a claim early in the litigation process.



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[i] Sutton v. Fayette EMS, No 23-1414, at 2 (3rd Cir. Mar. 26, 2024) (unpublished and non-precedential opinion).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 2-3.

[vii] Id. at 3.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. at 6.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id. at 4.

[xii] Id. at 4, citing Pa. R. Civ. Proc. 1042.3.

[xiii] Reibenstein v. Barax, 286 A.3d 222, 237 (Pa. 2022).

[xiv] Id. at 6.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id (emphasis added).