The Tennessee Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s decision to grant an extension to file certificate of good faith in a medical malpractice case, finding “good cause” based on parties’ confusion on Tennessee case law.
In Stovall v. UHS of Lakeside, LLC , No. W2013-01504-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 22, 2014), the Tennessee Court of Appeals rejected defendant medical providers’ attempts to dismiss plaintiff’s medical malpractice suit for failure to strictly comply with the certificate of good faith requirements set forth in Tennessee’s health care liability act.
In December 2010, Mrs. Stovall filed a medical malpractice suit against defendants for allegedly causing the death of her husband. A certificate of good faith was filed with the complaint, as required by Tenn. Code. Ann. §29-26-122(d)(4). That statute states that “the certificate of good faith shall disclose the number of prior violations of this section by the executing party.” Here, however, the certificate attached to the complaint did not assert that Mrs. Stovall’s counsel had no prior violations of the good faith certificate statute.
Defendant medical providers filed motions to dismiss arguing that Stovall had failed to disclose the number of prior violations of Tenn. Code. Ann. §29-26-122(d)(4) as required by the statute.
Plaintiff’s response was that, because counsel had no prior violations of the statute to disclose, the certificate of good faith was not deficient. Further, plaintiff asserted that dismissal was not appropriate for a technical, non-material omission. Plaintiff attached a certificate of good faith to her response indicating no prior violations of Tenn. Code. Ann. §29-26-122, and then plaintiff filed an amended complaint with a fully compliant certificate.
The parties engaged in discovery and the case was delayed many times and heard by many judges. Defendants’ motions to dismiss were heard in April 2013. The judge ruled orally that plaintiff had failed to strictly comply with the statutory requirements and that no extraordinary cause existed. However, before a written order was entered, plaintiff filed a motion for extension under Tenn. Code. Ann. §29-26-122(c) asking to extend the time to file a corrected certificate of good faith. Plaintiff attached a fully compliant certificate of good faith and an affidavit from her attorney asserting good cause for the extension.
In a written order entered in May 2013, the trial court denied defendants’ motions to dismiss. This time the trial court ruled that plaintiff’s counsel’s failure to disclose no violations did substantially comply with Tenn. Code. Ann. §29-26-122(d)(4). Alternatively, the trial court granted plaintiff’s motion for an extension finding that good cause existed to support the motion because the omission was a technical rather than material deviation from the language in the statute based on differing interpretations of the statute. Plaintiff had argued that it was unclear whether there was an affirmative duty to state “zero” violations in the certificate of good Meanwhile defense counsel had agreed that the statute was unclear, going so far as to admit that the reason a hearing wasn’t sought at an earlier time was because of a lack of sufficient case law on point.
On appeal, the appellate court held that the trial court had authority to extend the time for filing a certificate of good faith and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding good cause for the extension. The appellate court explored in length Tennessee case law on “good cause” and whether confusion regarding the law is sufficient to justify good cause. The result was a split of authority on the issue. Because reasonable minds clearly disagree, and a trial court’s discretionary decision must be upheld so long as reasonable minds can disagree about its correctness, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motions to dismiss. The appellate court held that it could not conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in finding good cause to support the motion for an extension and allowing the late-filing of a fully compliant certificate of good faith.
Substance has triumphed over form. Finally, the law in this area is beginning to make sense, although quite frankly I think it would be an abuse of discretion not to permit the amended filing, especially in the absence of a showing of prejudice to the defendants.
Lesson to lawyers: try to do it right. And if by chance you don’t do it perfectly, look to opinions like this one for help.