HCLA statute of limitations for claim against doctor and hospital began to run on same date.
Where plaintiff knew on October 31, 2017 that her surgeon had wrongly positioned screws during a previous spine surgery, the statute of limitations for her Tennessee HCLA claims against the hospital defendants who allegedly employed the surgeon began to run on that day.
In Karr v. Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital, No. M2020-00029-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2021), plaintiff had spine surgery in July 2016 performed by Dr. McCord at defendant hospital. Plaintiff continued seeing Dr. McCord until October 31, 2017, when she discovered that he had “malpositioned screws during the surgery.” Plaintiff did not return to Dr. McCord after this date, and instead began treating with Dr. Cheng. Dr. Cheng performed surgery on plaintiff on May 14, 2018, at which time he “discovered…that both the number and the extent of the malpositioned screws was greater than previously known,” and he told plaintiff that the surgery performed by Dr. McCord did not properly address the diagnosis she had been given.
Plaintiff filed two separate cases related to the surgery by Dr. McCord. For her suit against Dr. McCord, plaintiff sent pre-suit notice on October 30, 2018, which was within the one-year period from the date she first learned the screws were not correct. For the suit at issue on this appeal, which was against the hospital defendants who allegedly employed or controlled Dr. McCord, pre-suit notice was not sent until March 4, 2019, with suit being filed on July 1, 2019. Defendants moved to dismiss the case based on the statute of limitations, arguing that the one-year limitations period for this HCLA claim began to run on October 31, 2017 when plaintiff learned that the screws had been inserted incorrectly. The trial court agreed, dismissing the action, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
HCLA claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations, and pursuant to the discovery rule, that one-year begins to run “when the patient discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, (1) the occasion, the manner, and the means by which the breach of duty occurred that produced the patient’s injuries; and (2) the identity of the defendant who breached the duty.” (internal citation omitted). “The relevant inquiry is when Plaintiffs became aware of facts sufficient to put a reasonable person on notice that he or she has suffered an injury as a result of the Hospital Defendants’ wrongful conduct.” (internal citation omitted).
Plaintiff asserted that she “did not and could not have discovered [she] had separate causes of action against the Hospital Defendants until May 14, 2018—when Dr. Cheng performed surgery and discovered the malpositioned screws in [plaintiff’s] spinal canal, through her ribs, and abutting her aorta.” Defendant argued, though, that plaintiff had sufficient knowledge that she had “potentially suffered an injury due to the Hospital Defendants’ wrongful conduct on October 31, 2017,” and that the statute of limitations for all claims related to the surgery, no matter the theory under which they were advanced, began to run on that day. The Court of Appeals agreed with defendants.
The Court explained that plaintiff “became aware that Dr. McCord malpositioned screws” during her surgery on October 31, 2017, that she never returned to Dr. McCord after that date despite having continuing back pain, and that she sent pre-suit notice of her claim against Dr. McCord within one year of that date. Because plaintiff knew she “had been injured and the identity of those whose wrongful conduct allegedly caused her injury as of October 31, 2017,” the Court ruled that there “was enough information for Plaintiffs to discover the wrongful act through reasonable care and diligence” at that time. The claim against the hospital defendants, filed more than a year after October 31, 2017, was therefore not timely and dismissal was affirmed.
When considering the statute of limitations for an HCLA claim, plaintiffs must be careful not to delay until they discover the full extent of their injuries. Plaintiff here argued that the statute of limitations for her claims began to run on different days for different defendants, and this argument was clearly rejected by the Court of Appeals.
NOTE: This opinion was filed six months after oral arguments in this case.