HCLA Statute of Limitations Started Before Plaintiff Consulted Expert

Where an HCLA plaintiff was aware of injuries suffered by a decedent and had been told by a nurse that she should look into the decedent’s care at the hospital, the statute of limitations began running well before an expert reviewed the decedent’s medical files and opined that the injury was caused by the hospital.

In Daffron v. Memorial Health Care System, Inc., No. E2018-02199-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 7, 2019), plaintiff filed a wrongful death action under the HCLA based on the death of her father. The father had diabetes, and plaintiff had been caring for him for some time before he was admitted to the hospital. Plaintiff knew that her father required specific skincare to avoid the development of bed sores. When the father was admitted to defendant hospital, he had no sores, but on November 11, 2013, just 10 days after he was admitted, plaintiff discovered that he had two bed sores on his buttocks. He eventually needed two debridements to treat these sores.

The father was transferred to another hospital in late November, but was then transferred back to defendant hospital before being released to hospice and then home. Sometime during that stay in December 2013, plaintiff saw a nurse in defendant hospital who “advised her to look into her father’s care.” This conversation prompted plaintiff to contact a law firm in December 2013, and in February 2014 plaintiff, through counsel, requested her father’s medical records. The records were sent on March 17, 2014, and the father died in April. Plaintiff sent pre-suit notice to defendant hospital on April 21, 2015 and subsequently filed suit.

After this suit was filed, defendant filed a motion for summary judgment based on the one-year statute of limitations that applies to HCLA claims. In response, plaintiff argued that “she became aware of [defendant’s] alleged negligence only when informed by her expert…in March 2015.” The trial court, however, disagreed and granted summary judgment, finding that the statute of limitations began to run no later than December 2013 in this case. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court noted that in an HCLA case, the statute of limitations 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 identity of the person or persons whose wrongful conduct caused the injury.” (internal citation omitted). Importantly, “[n]either actual knowledge of a breach of the relevant legal standard nor diagnosis of the injury by another medical professional is a prerequisite to the accrual of a medical malpractice cause of action.” (internal citation omitted).

Based on the facts of this case, the Court of Appeals rejected plaintiff’s assertion that she did not discover her potential cause of action until an expert reviewed her father’s medical records. The Court pointed out that plaintiff was “deeply familiar with her father’s medical condition” and that “she knew [his] sores could have resulted from improper skincare.” However, because these sores could also happen in the absence of negligence, the Court stated that plaintiff’s awareness of the sores “alone does not establish [plaintiff’s] knowledge such that no reasonable trier of fact could find otherwise.” But this knowledge combined with plaintiff’s “actions in the weeks and months that followed” ultimately supported summary judgment.

The Court specifically noted that plaintiff was told by a nurse to look into her father’s care, that she contacted a law firm, and that she sought his records. The Court stated that all of these actions showed that plaintiff “knew her father had a claim warranting investigation,” and that “there was a succession of events reflecting [plaintiff’s] awareness that her father had been injured by [defendant’s] wrongful acts long before she received an expert’s opinion.” The Court found that plaintiff was on notice of her claim at the time she received advice from the nurse in December 2013 about looking into decedent’s care, and at the absolute latest by the time she received medical records through counsel in March 2014, as she then had “everything she needed to ascertain the injury, the wrongful actions, and the responsible party.” Using either of those starting points, plaintiff sent her pre-suit notice outside of the one-year HCLA statute of limitations, and summary judgment was thus affirmed.

This case is a reminder that the statute of limitations in an HCLA case will often start to run before a plaintiff has all the information about a case, and a lawyer assessing such a case must carefully consider when the limitations period may have started to run. In this opinion, the Court of Appeals itself noted that “between the discovery rule and the good faith certificate requirement…, a plaintiff may be pressed for time between the accrual of her claim and the expiration of the statute of limitations,” but nonetheless found that the “harsh result” in this case was required by Tennessee law.