Tennessee’s Three-Year Health Care Liability Statute of Repose Bars Claim

 This case involves the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Act and the application of the three-year statute of repose.  On December 19, 1999, Jessie Bentley suffered severe injuries during labor and delivery by the defendant medical providers.  Suit was not filed until February 1, 2013 and the defendants all immediately moved for dismissal citing the three-year statute of repose and the Calaway decision.  Relying on the Crespo decision, plaintiff defended by arguing application of the statute of repose violated his due process rights and violated the equal protection clause.  The trial court granted the dismissal and the appeal followed. 

The Court of Appeals began its analysis with the proposition that vested rights of action in tort are constitutionally protected property interests and thus they are protected by both the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.  Next, the Court turned to the Calaway decision, 193 S.W. 3d 509 (Tenn. 2005), in which the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a "plaintiff’s minority does not toll the medical malpractice statute of repose".   In short, the Calaway Court reasoned that to allow disability or minority to toll the statute of repose would defeat the very purpose of the statute.  However, the Court was mindful of those plaintiffs and lawyers who had relied upon prior decisions and ruled the statute of repose would only have prospective application to cases commenced after December 9, 2005. 

The Court of Appeals also found the plaintiff’s reliance on the Crespo decision was misplaced.  In Crespo, approximately one year after the birth of their minor child, the parents hired counsel to pursue a medical malpractice claim.  Relying on prior precedent, the malpractice investigation proceeded at a "relatively leisurely pace, which was perfectly reasonable given the clearly stated law at the time."  Four years after the birth, as the plaintiff’s were awaiting responses to requests for medical records and were preparing to file suit, the Calaway decision was rendered and Crespo’s case was instantly gone.  Under those circumstances, the Court of Appeals found the Crespos had been denied due process and their right to equal protection were violated.  

However, in this case, the Bentley plaintiffs had waited for seven years after the Calaway decision to file suit.  And unlike the plaintiffs in Crespo, they had not been actively pursuing their case at the time of the Calaway decision.  As such, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal pursuant to the statute of repose. 

The case is Bentley v. Wellmont Health SystemNo. E2013-01956-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App.  April 10, 2014).