The Louisiana Health Emergency Powers Act (LHEPA), La. R.S. 29:760 et seq, was enacted in 2003 to allow the government to use extraordinary powers in order to respond to potential or actual public health emergencies. Historically, claims against medical providers have been governed by a negligence standard, which requires a plaintiff to prove the provider failed to act with reasonable care. However, La. R.S. 29:771(2)(c), which was enacted as part of the LHEPA, provides what has been described as a limited or quasi-immunity for health care providers:
During a state of public health emergency, any health care providers shall not be civilly liable for causing the death of, or injury to, any person or damage to any property except in the event of gross negligence or willful misconduct.
This provision imposes a heightened standard of gross negligence or willful misconduct for claims against health care providers and their employees. “Gross negligence” has been defined as “the entire absence of care and the utter disregard of the dictates of prudence, amounting to complete neglect of the rights of others.”* Therefore, absent a showing of gross negligence or willful misconduct, the provision provides immunity from civil liability for all claims against all health care providers.
The reach and application of this heightened standard of gross negligence under the LHEPA has been the subject of recent rulings from Louisiana courts. In Lejeune v. Steck, which was decided before COVID-19 in connection with a public health emergency declared following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the LHEPA’s heightened standard applied to all medical providers in the state while the state was in a public health emergency.^
In Lejeune, a doctor left a sponge in a patient during a surgery. The plaintiff argued that a general negligence standard should apply because the surgery occurred outside the Hurricane Katrina emergency area. However, the Court found that the plaintiff must prove gross negligence or willful misconduct because the LHEPA “does not provide for a limited set of health care providers, nor does it limit its application to only those medical personnel rendering emergency assistance voluntarily due to the emergency in the area.” Thus, the Court ruled the LHEPA was broad reaching and covered all health care providers in all areas of Louisiana during the public health emergency.
More recently, Governor Edwards invoked the LHEPA on March 11, 2020 in response to COVID-19. In line with the all-inclusive application seen in Lejeune, the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the LHEPA applied to all claims against health care providers that arose during the public health emergency declared for COVID-19.
In Lathon v. Leslie Lakes Ret. Ctr., the Second Circuit applied the LHEPA to a premises liability claim.^^ The plaintiff slipped and fell in a puddle at Leslie Lakes Retirement Center. The accident occurred during the declared public health emergency. The retirement center filed a motion for summary judgment and argued that because it qualified as a health care provider, the gross negligence standard set forth in the LHEPA should apply to the plaintiff’s claim.
The court agreed and found that the statute dictated that immunity applied in favor of any healthcare provider for any personal injury or property damage claim as long as it arose during a public health emergency. In so holding, the Court stated that the purpose of the LHEPA was to alleviate the liability burden on healthcare providers during public health emergencies. Therefore, the Court found its ruling aligned with the purpose of the act. The Lathon decision is significant because it applied the LHEPA’s statutory immunity to personal injury claims against healthcare providers outside of a medical malpractice setting.
At least one justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court voiced a desire to address the constitutionality of this statutory immunity provision. However, the Court ultimately declined to review the Second Circuit’s ruling. Therefore, under Lathon, it appears the statutory immunity granted under the LHEPA applies to any claim brought against any healthcare provider for acts that occur during a public health emergency. While it remains to be seen how courts will address this issue in the future, these decisions show the reach and application of the LHEPA continue to evolve.
*Ambrose v. New Orleans Police Dep’t Ambulance Serv., 93-3099 (La. 7/5/94), 639 So. 2d 216.
^Lejeune v. Steck, 13-1017 (La. App. 5 Cir. 5/21/14), 138 So. 3d 1280, writ denied sub nom. Daigle v. Steck, 2014-1408 (La. 10/3/14), 149 So. 3d 800.
^^Lathon v. Leslie Lakes Ret. Ctr., 54,479 (La.App. 2 Cir. 9/21/22); 348 So.3d 888, writ denied, 2022-01566 (La. 12/20/22); 352 So.3d 80.