Medical Malpractice Plaintiff Burned by Pre-2011 Notice Law

Several cases have now held that the 2011 amendments to the Health Care Liability Act (HCLA), which added language referring to governmental entities, allow plaintiffs bringing an HCLA claim under the GTLA to take advantage of the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations after giving proper pre-suit notice. Recently, though, a plaintiff whose claim arose before the enactment of this amendment tried to creatively argue that she too should be allowed the extra 120 days.

In Miller ex rel. Miller v. Cookeville Regional Med. Ctr., No. M2014-01917-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 29, 2015), plaintiff’s husband had died after being given an excessive dose of blood thinners. The husband died on May 18, 2010.   Plaintiff gave pre-suit notice on May 11, 2011, and then filed suit on September 8, 2011, one year and 113 days after the death. Upon motion by the defendant, the trial court dismissed the claim as untimely, relying on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Cunningham v. Williamson County Hospital District, 405 S.W.3d 41 (Tenn. 2013). In Cunningham, the Supreme Court held that the HCLA as it existed prior to the 2011 amendments did not allow GTLA plaintiffs to take advantage of the 120-day statute of limitations extension.

In the present case, the Court noted that “the relevant date in determining whether the 2011 amendment to the HCLA applies to a case is the date on which the cause of action accrues.” Since the injury here occurred in May 2010, well before the October 1, 2011 enactment date of the 2011 amendment, “the statute of limitations was not extended by giving pre-suit notice[.]”

Plaintiff argued, however, that the Cunningham decision should only be applied prospectively, and since she filed suit before it was decided the ruling should not apply to her claim. The Court rejected this argument, though, noting that when the plaintiff filed suit was not the important date; instead, the focus was on when the cause of action accrued. If the cause of action arose before the enactment of the 2011 amendments, then the reasoning of Cunningham was relevant and the 120-day extension was not available for GTLA plaintiffs.

While this produced a harsh result, the Court of Appeals correctly applied the law as it had been interpreted by the Supreme Court. Fortunately this hole was fixed by the 2011 amendment to the HCLA, and now GTLA plaintiffs can utilize the 120-day extension afforded to other HCLA claimants.