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Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County v. Menapace

Supreme Court of Wyoming

November 9, 2017

DARRELL MENAPACE, Appellee (Plaintiff).

         Appeal from the District Court of Sweetwater County The Honorable Richard L. Lavery, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Corinne E. Rutledge and Erin A. Barkley of Lathrop & Rutledge, P.C., Cheyenne, WY. Argument by Ms. Barkley.

          Representing Appellee: G. Bryan Ulmer III, Emily R. Rankin, and Michael F. Lutz of The Spence Law Firm, LLC, Jackson, WY. Argument by Mr. Lutz.

          Before BURKE, C.J., and HILL, DAVIS, FOX, and KAUTZ, JJ.


          HILL, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Darrell Menapace filed a medical malpractice complaint against Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County (the Hospital) alleging the Hospital was vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of a physician who worked at the hospital as an independent contractor. The Hospital moved for summary judgment on the ground that the physician was not a Hospital employee and the Hospital was therefore immune from liability for his acts or omissions. The district court found that the Hospital waived its immunity by purchasing liability insurance and on that basis denied the Hospital's summary judgment motion. We reverse.


         [¶2] The Hospital states the issue on appeal as:

Was Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County "legally responsible" for the acts or omissions of alleged ostensible agent Dr. Lin Miao at the time of the treatment at issue, such that it waived its immunity to ostensible agency claims under the insurance exception at Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-39-118(b)?


         [¶3] Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County is a government entity operating in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The Hospital carries a liability insurance policy, issued by UMIA Insurance, Inc. (the UMIA Policy), which includes the following coverage for medical professional liability claims against the Hospital:

UMIA agrees to pay on behalf of the insured all sums which the insured shall become legally obligated to pay as damages because of any claim or claims * * * arising out of the performance of medical professional services rendered or which should have been rendered * * * by the insured or any person for whose acts or omissions the insured is legally responsible. (emphasis in original to indicate defined policy terms)[1]

         [¶4] In 2012, the Hospital entered into a contract with EmCare, Inc., which provided that for a period of three years, EmCare would be the exclusive provider of hospitalist physician services for the Hospital. One of the hospitalist physicians provided pursuant to that contract was Dr. Lin Miao. Dr. Miao was not an EmCare employee, but was a locum tenens physician provided by EmCare to cover EmCare shifts at the Hospital.[2]

         [¶5] On June 6, 2013, Darrell Menapace was admitted to the Hospital with complaints of numbness and cramping in his legs and an inability to walk and was seen by Dr. Miao. Dr. Miao did not request a vascular consult and discharged Mr. Menapace on June 8, 2013. On June 11, 2013, Mr. Menapace saw a nurse practitioner, Angela Slinden, who scheduled him for a vascular consult to take place two and a half days later. On June 12, 2013, Mr. Menapace self-referred to the University of Utah where he was diagnosed with acute limb ischemia, sepsis, and acute renal failure, and underwent emergent bilateral above the knee amputations.

         [¶6] On May 6, 2015, Mr. Menapace filed a complaint against the Hospital, Dr. Miao, and Angela Slinden.[3] Mr. Menapace's claims against the Hospital included, among others, a claim for vicarious liability for Dr. Miao's care and treatment of Mr. Menapace. The Hospital answered the complaint and asserted several affirmative defenses, including: the Hospital is not liable for actions of independent contractors; the Hospital is not liable for actions of ostensible agents; and the Hospital is a governmental entity immune from the claims against it.

         [¶7] On June 30, 2016, the Hospital moved for partial summary judgment against Mr. Menapace's vicarious liability claims. In support of the motion, the Hospital asserted that under the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act (WGCA), the Hospital "cannot be held vicariously liable for the acts of a physician who was not its employee." On November 7, 2016, the district court issued an order denying the Hospital's motion. The court concluded that the Hospital's purchase of liability insurance, and in particular its coverage for "any person for whose acts or omissions" the Hospital "is legally responsible, " acted as a waiver of its immunity and extended its liability under the WGCA to include liability for the acts or omissions of the Hospital's apparent agents, including Dr. Miao.

         [¶8] On December 7, 2016, the Hospital filed a timely Notice of Appeal to this Court.[4]


         [¶9] We review the district court's summary judgment ruling de novo:

We review a grant of summary judgment deciding a question of law de novo. Sky Harbor Air Serv., Inc. v. Cheyenne Reg'l Airport Bd., 2016 WY 17, ¶ 40, 368 P.3d 264, 272 (Wyo. 2016). In doing so, "We review a summary judgment in the same light as the district court, using the same materials and following the same standards." Thornock v. PacifiCorp, 2016 WY 93, ¶ 10, 379 P.3d 175, 179 (Wyo. 2016) (quoting Rogers v. Wright, 2016 WY 10, ¶ 7, 366 P.3d 1264, 1269 (Wyo. 2016)). "No deference is accorded to the district court on issues of law, and we may affirm the summary judgment on any legal grounds appearing in the record." Cont'l Western Ins. Co. v. Black, 2015 WY 145, ¶ 13, 361 P.3d 841, 845 (Wyo. 2015). "The summary judgment can be sustained only when no genuine issues of material fact are present and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. * * *

Halling v. Yovanovich, 2017 WY 28, ¶ 12, 391 P.3d 611, 616 (Wyo. 2017).

         [¶10] This appeal requires that we interpret an insurance policy, which is a question of law for this Court. North Fork Land & Cattle, LLLP v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 2015 WY 150, ¶ 10, 362 P.3d 341, 345 (Wyo. 2015). We interpret insurance policies in the same manner as any other contract. North Fork Land & Cattle, ¶ 14, 362 P.3d at 346. Our review begins with the document's plain language, and

we interpret the contract as a whole and read each provision in light of the others to find the plain meaning. We avoid interpreting provisions in a way that makes the other provisions inconsistent or meaningless. Finally, "[b]ecause we use an objective approach to interpret contracts, evidence of the parties' subjective intent is not relevant or admissible in interpreting a contract."

Gumpel v. Copperleaf Homeowners Ass'n, Inc., 2017 WY 46, ¶ 29, 393 P.3d 1279, 1290 (Wyo. 2017) (quoting Thornock v. PacifiCorp, 2016 WY 93, ¶ 13, 379 P.3d 175, 180 (Wyo. 2016)).


         [¶11] The question on summary judgment, and now on appeal, is whether the Hospital is vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of its apparent agent, Dr. Miao, in his treatment of Mr. Menapace.[5] Although a hospital generally is vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of its apparent agents, Sharsmith v. Hill, 764 P.2d 667, 671-72 (Wyo. 1988), we have held that a county hospital, as a governmental entity, is immune under the WGCA from liability for the acts or omissions of an apparent agent. Pfeifle, ¶ 26, 317 P.3d at 580. The WGCA does, however, allow a governmental entity to purchase liability insurance "covering liability which is not authorized by [the WGCA]" and to thereby extend its liability to the extent of that coverage. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-39-118(b)(i) ...

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