Discovery Rule Applied in Murder-Suicide Case – Claim Barred

Where a plaintiff knew that her father had escaped from a hospital where his family had requested a mental evaluation and then killed his wife and himself, the plaintiff had constructive knowledge of her claim against the treating doctor and hospital as of the day she learned about the murder-suicide.

In Herpst v. Parkridge Medical Center, No. E2017-00419-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 23, 2018), plaintiff and her family members took her father to defendant hospital because he was experiencing “paranoia and delusional episodes” and had discussed committing suicide. They chose this specific hospital because it was “the only hospital in Chattanooga that has a dedicated and secured floor for mental evaluations.” Plaintiff and her family requested a mental evaluation of her father and told his treating physician that he was a danger to himself.

On the day after the father’s admission, plaintiff inquired about when the evaluation would be done and did not get an answer. The next day, he had become agitated and plaintiff again got no answers from the nurses, who allegedly stated: “we don’t know, we don’t care, we’re tired of fooling with him…he’s crazy.” Three days after his admission, the father pulled his I.V. out and left the hospital. Sometime in the following two days, he killed his wife and himself, and plaintiff was notified of her parents’ death on July 3, 2013.

After sending pre-suit notice of her claim, plaintiff first filed an HCLA suit on behalf of her father’s estate against the treating doctor and hospital on November 6, 2014. That suit was voluntarily dismissed, and plaintiff filed the instant case on November 13, 2015, relying on the savings statute. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the claim, asserting that the first suit was filed outside the statute of limitations and that the second suit was therefore time-barred. The trial court granted this motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The only issue here was when the statute of limitations began to run. Plaintiff argued that the limitations period did not begin to run until March 1, 2014, when she first conducted a “diligent review” of her father’s medical records and realized that defendants failed to properly assess her father’s mental condition. The Court rejected this argument, finding that plaintiff had at least constructive knowledge of her claim on July 3, 2013.

HCLA claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations period, which begins to run

when one discovers, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered, both (1) that he or she has been injured by wrongful or tortious conduct and (2) the identify of the person or persons whose wrongful conduct caused the injury. A claimant need not actually know of the commission of a wrongful act in order for the limitations period to begin, but need only be aware of facts sufficient to place a reasonable person on notice that the inquiry was the result of the wrongful conduct of another.

(internal citation and quotation omitted).

In this case, the Court noted that as of July 3, 2013, plaintiff knew that her father had killed her mother and himself and that he had previously been “in the exclusive care and control of defendants.” Plaintiff had personally spoken with the doctors and nurses in charge of the father’s case and had been given vague and unclear answers regarding his mental evaluation. Based on these facts, the Court reasoned:

[I]f there was a tortfeasor, or tortfeasors, plaintiff certainly knew their identities. …[B]y July 3, 2013, plaintiff knew that her father had escaped from the only area hospital with a ‘secured floor’ for mental evaluations. Even though plaintiff probably did not have actual knowledge that a mental evaluation had been performed…, her complaint makes clear that she had reason to doubt that the requested evaluation had been performed. …All of these facts demonstrate that by July 3, 2013, plaintiff had constructive notice of her medical malpractice claim. Upon learning that her father had escaped from the hospital and killed both his wife and himself, a reasonable person would have realized the need to further investigate the injury, especially in light of plaintiff’s prior dealings with hospital staff.

Because the one-year limitations period began to run on July 3, 2013, even with the 120-day extension provided by the HCLA, plaintiff needed to file her initial suit by October 30, 2014. Her failure to do so meant that her first, and thus second suit, were untimely, and dismissal was affirmed.