KS court: Doctors, patients are 'suppliers,' 'consumers'

Providers not included in consumer protection law

A Kansas Supreme Court ruling that defined physicians as "suppliers" prompted swift action by legislators, who have taken action on a bill that would exclude health care providers from being sued for deceptive practices under the state Consumer Protection Act.

The Supreme Court ruled that the state's consumer protection law was broad enough to include medical care and errors — not just billing errors, which are accepted as part of consumer protection. Patients, as "consumers," could sue doctors, the "suppliers," for deceptive practices if outcomes were not as expected.

The Kansas Medical Society swiftly came out in opposition to the ruling, and legislation was quickly drafted that would exclude health care providers as the "supplier" under the consumer protection law.

The bill passed the state House overwhelmingly in March; the Senate was considering the bill at the time Medial Ethics Advisorwent to print.

The state Supreme Court's ruling comes from the appeal of a lawsuit filed by a Kansas woman, Tracy Williamson, against her orthopedic surgeon, Jacob Amrani, MD, after fusion surgery was unsuccessful in relieving her back pain.

Williamson claims that Amrani assured her of the likelihood that the surgery would relieve her back pain, but alleges that he actually often had unsatisfactory outcomes with this type of surgery. Amrani alleges he made no promises of success to Williamson, and that she signed multiple consent forms that contained wording indicating no guarantees were made.

Williamson sued under the consumer protection law, rather than under malpractice laws, and the state high court agreed that she could, considering the current wording of the Consumer Protection Act. The court stated in its ruling that it would be up to the legislature to alter wording to exclude malpractice issues from consumer protection lawsuits.

Legislators sponsoring the bill say it will keep malpractice issues out of consumer protection cases, while still leaving questions of false advertising and billing as consumer issues.

Williamson previously had sued Amrani for medical malpractice, but her suit was dismissed due to lack of expert witnesses. In media accounts of the case, Amrani's attorney said the subsequent suit under consumer protection law was merely an "end run" around the failed malpractice action.

The Supreme Court's ruling sent Williamson's case back to the district court for trial, and a trial is expected to take place later this year. Changes in the law at this point would not affect Williamson's lawsuit against Amrani.

"We do not believe a special group ought to be exempt [from consumer protection actions]," says Ashley Anstaett, a spokeswoman for Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison. "We believe this bill eliminates legal protection for consumers of health care services."

The Medical Society of Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, issued a statement advocating keeping medical malpractice out of consumer protection lawsuits and not to treat the doctor-patient relationship "as a consumer transaction."