In Harper v. Bradley County, No. E2014-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2014), the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified one aspect of the interplay between the Health Care Liability Act (“HCLA”) and the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”). The Court held that under the current version of the HCLA, health care liability actions against governmental entities are entitled to the 120-day extension of the statute of limitations provided by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(c).
To reach its decision, the Court relied heavily on Cunningham v. Williamson County Hosp. Dist., 405 S.W.3d 41 (Tenn. 2013). In that case, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that the 120-day extension did not apply to medical malpractice claims arising under the GTLA. The Cunningham Court noted that “in the absence of specific statutory language permitting extension of the GTLA statute of limitations, …statutory provisions inconsistent with the GTLA may not extend the applicable statute of limitations period.” Despite its holding, the Supreme Court pointed out in a footnote that the legislature amended the HCLA in 2011 to modify the definition of “health care liability action” to include “claims against the state or a political subdivision thereof.”
In the Harper case, the plaintiff’s claim arose after the effective date of the 2011 amendments. Thus, the Court of Appeals was tasked with determining whether the 2011 language change required a different outcome regarding applicability of the 120-day extension. The Court noted that the 2011 language changes “for the first time, expressly brings governmental entities…within the ambit of the HCLA.” Accordingly, the Court held that “the 2011 amendment, now codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-101, clearly expresses a legislative intent to extend the statute of limitations in GTLA cases where the plaintiff has met the procedural requirements of the HCLA.”
Because this is the first case addressing this issue under the 2011 amendment language, this is an important case for attorneys to be aware of. While the Tennessee Supreme Court has yet to hold that medical malpractice cases arising under the GTLA are entitled to the 120-day extension, the Harper case is currently the highest authority addressing the question under current legislation.
I predict that the Tennessee Supreme Court will affirm this decision.