The 4-3 ruling means that the case of a woman who died in a flooded eastern New Orleans hospital, and hundreds of similar cases, will not need to detour through state review panels before trials can be scheduled. Reviews needed for malpractice suits can take up to a year.
The decision reverses an appeal court ruling that said such claims amount to malpractice because they involve decisions affecting patient care.
Althea Lacoste walked into Methodist Hospital with her portable ventilator on Aug. 28, 2005, one day before Katrina struck. She died before rescuers could reach the flooded, powerless building in eastern New Orleans.
Her sons, Stephen and Neal, contended that general negligence law applies to the case, not malpractice law.
The majority of the court agreed.
A lack of any evacuation plan at all or failure to make sure a building is safe from floods "is not `treatment related' or the result of a dereliction of professional medical skill," Chief Justice Pascal Calogero wrote.
Calogero also noted that no doctor, nurse or other health care provider was accused of anything, and "the hospital's decisions affected all persons present in the hospital whether employee, patient or visitor."
The dissent, by Justice Jeanette Knoll, said the case should be heard as a malpractice claim.
"Clearly and most telling, Mrs. LaCoste died from the condition for which she was admitted because of lack of treatment and not because she suffered from any independent injury," Knoll wrote.