Failure to list decedent’s minor children as claimants on HCLA notice should have resulted in dismissal.

Where an HCLA pre-suit notice was sent by decedent’s mother, but the notice failed to mention decedent’s two minor children who were the proper parties to bring the action, the trial court should have granted defendant hospital’s motion to dismiss.

In Denson v. Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, No. E2023-00027-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 12, 2023), decedent died of cardiac arrest shortly after being discharged from defendant hospital. Decedent had two minor children who were then placed with their maternal grandmother (decedent’s mother), and the grandmother was named the temporary custodian of the children.

The grandmother sent pre-suit notice of an HCLA claim to defendants, which listed the grandmother as the claimant. The pre-suit notice did not mention the minor children. The grandmother then filed this HCLA suit as “Decedent’ mother and next friend and individually,” and in the complaint, she alleged for the first time that she was bringing the suit “on behalf of…decedent’s surviving minor children…as Grandmother and Legal Guardian.”

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the pre-suit notice failed to identify the proper claimant and was thus deficient under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121. The trial court initially granted the motion, but after plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider, the trial court reversed and found that the failure to name the children in the notice was a “technical defect” that did not prejudice defendants, and that the grandmother had standing to give notice and file the claim on behalf of the children as their temporary custodian. On appeal, this ruling was reversed in part and affirmed in part.

Considering whether the grandmother substantially complied with the pre-suit notice requirements of the HCLA when she failed to indicate on the notice that she was acting on behalf of decedent’s minor children, the Court of Appeals first looked to Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes to establish that the right to bring the cause of action at issue here vested in the minor children. The Court then looked at the purpose of pre-suit notice, which is, at least in part, to “facilitate early resolution of healthcare liability claims by requiring plaintiffs to advise defendants who the plaintiff is, how to reach him or her, and how to contact his or her attorney.” (internal citation omitted).

The trial court found that the failure to name the children in the notice was a “technical defect” that did not prejudice defendants, but the Court of Appeals disagreed:

Grandmother’s failure to list the only proper claimants was not a technical defect but rather a substantial deviation from the clear requirements of the statute. One of the primary purposes of that section of the pre-suit notice is to identify to the defendants “who the plaintiff is.” Based on the content of the pre-suit notice, the defendants could only believe that the claimant was Decedent’s mother. Moreover, we cannot agree with the trial court that the defendants suffered no prejudice as a result of the defect. Again, the purpose of the statute is to allow the defendants to gather all relevant information in order to facilitate early settlement of the claim. It is axiomatic that identification of the proper plaintiff is a significant piece of information. And the significance is great in this case because the presence of the children as proper claimants changes the claim to a “catastrophic loss” and increases its maximum value by $250,000.

(internal citations omitted).

The Court also rejected the grandmother’s argument that defendants could have learned about the minor children from decedent’s medical records. The Court stated that references in the medical records to family and two prior c-sections were not enough to show notice, and that “the defendants are not required to search for information that should have been contained in the pre-suit notice.”

The Court accordingly held that the pre-suit notice was not sufficient and the trial court should have granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Although this ruling was dispositive of the case, the Court of Appeals addressed the second certified question on appeal as well, which was whether the grandmother had the authority to file suit on the children’s behalf. Defendants argued that “only a legal guardian, not a custodian, has the right to file suit on behalf of the minor children,” but the Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court ruled that the grandmother, “as custodian, is an appropriate representative under Rule 17.03 to file suit on behalf of the minor children.”

Judge McClarty wrote a dissenting opinion wherein he agreed that the grandmother had the authority to file suit on behalf of the minors, but he disagreed with the holding that the case should have been dismissed. He wrote that “under these limited and unique circumstances, I believe that Grandmother’s failure to identify the children did not result in prejudice and that the pre-suit notice provided substantially complied with the content requirements of the notice statutes.”

This opinion emphasizes the importance of correctly naming the claimant when sending HCLA pre-suit notice, especially in cases where the injured party is deceased. Here, the failure to name the children on the pre-suit notice was ultimately fatal to the claim.

This opinion was released four months after oral arguments in this case.

Note:  Chapter 52, Section 6 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.

Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law contains summaries of leading cases on over 500 topics and citations to more than 2500 additional cases.  The 550,000+ word book  (and three others, Tennessee Law of Civil TrialTennessee Wrongful Death Law,  Compendium of Tennessee Tort Reform Cases) is available by subscription at and is continually updated as new decisions and statutes impact Tennessee law.  Click on the link to see the book’s Table of Contents.

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