Summary judgment vacated where trial court order failed to give reasons for decision


Where the trial court did not provide sufficient reasoning in support of its dismissal of plaintiffs’ various HCLA and informed consent claims, summary judgment for defendants was vacated.

In Boyd v. Gibson, No. W2020-01305-COA-R3-CV, 2022 WL 95167 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2022), plaintiff had been treated by defendant doctor for cancer (defendant’s employer was also a defendant). This treatment began in 2014 and included surgery. According to plaintiff, defendant told her that she would not benefit from chemotherapy or radiation, and defendant “did not explain to [plaintiff] the survival rates with chemo/radiation and more extensive rectal surgery…” After the September 2014 surgery, defendant referred plaintiff to an oncologist “without discussing chemo/radiation therapy or consulting a radiation oncologist.” In August 2017, plaintiff learned that her cancer and reoccurred and spread.

Plaintiff gave pre-suit notice and filed this complaint in January 2018 against defendant doctor and his employer, alleging that “he had failed to obtain informed consent.” Plaintiff asserted that defendant “had a duty to give her information about the treatment he proposed for her rectal cancer and available alternative treatments…” Plaintiff also alleged that defendant’s “conduct had fallen below the standard of acceptable professional practice between August 11, 204 and September 25, 2014” based on his failure to use certain procedures during surgery. Plaintiff made additional allegations that certain records were concealed from her and that some of her medical records had been falsified.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that plaintiff failed to file her complaint within the three-year statute of repose. Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint which included allegations that defendant “failed to give her informed consent up to September 26, 2016,” and that she did not learn of defendant’s negligence until August 7, 2017. Defendant conceded that “the statute of repose did not apply to lack of informed consent claims based on any visits between October 17, 2014 and September 26, 2016,” but argued that these claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Defendant filed a new motion to dismiss, asserting that plaintiffs’ various informed consent claims were barred by either the statute of repose or the statute of limitations. In response, plaintiff pointed to defendant’s alleged fraudulent concealment. The trial court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, treating it as a motion for summary judgment because the parties had submitted matters outside the pleadings. Because the trial court did not give sufficient reasons for its decision, summary judgment was vacated on appeal.

Rule 56.04 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure requires a trial court to “state the legal grounds upon which the court denies or grants the motion, and to include such statement in the order reflecting the trial court’s ruling.” (internal citation omitted). In this case, plaintiff had alleged informed consent violations at multiple times during her treatment, as well as fraudulent concealment. The trial court, however, had stated in its order that “Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the statute of limitations and statute of repose,” which the Court of Appeals found insufficient. The Court reasoned:

The problem that exists…is that it is unclear to us whether the trial court’s conclusions are in fact intended to apply to all claims. That is, is it the trial court’s determination that each of [plaintiff’s] asserted claims against the Defendants are barred by both the statute of limitations and the statute of repose? On its face, the order arguably textually suggests so, but we note that even the Defendants in this case have conceded that certain of the allegations against them are not barred by the statute of repose. …[W]e note that the operative complaint against the Defendants involves the assertion of a number of distinct claims by [plaintiff], with the included allegations spanning across a number of years. The court’s order, however, paints with a broad conclusory brush, without any specific engagement of the wide breadth of allegations under certain counts and without any specific acknowledgment of the distinct claims asserted. Thus, beyond the initial question of whether the court actually intended to apply the cited bases for dismissal with respect to each asserted claim, we have some additional concern as to whether the court carefully considered each of the various claims asserted against the Defendants and the totality of the allegations leveled against them.

Because the trial court order did not give sufficient reasons for dismissing plaintiff’s “temporally diverse” claims, the Court of Appeals ruled that the judgment should be “vacated and the matter remanded for more detailed and specific findings and consideration.”

Rather than simply vacating the summary judgment, however, the Court of Appeals went on to state that “one portion of the court’s current order [was] deserving of specific comment.” Some of plaintiff’s lack of informed consent claims were based on conduct occurring as late as September 2016, when defendant allegedly failed to give plaintiff information about alternative treatments. The Court of Appeals noted that “the onset of adverse medical concerns arising after treatment can potentially alert a plaintiff to a defendant’s previous lack of disclosures and therefore trigger the limitation period concerning the plaintiff’s lack of informed consent claim.” Rather than considering the date when plaintiff learned her cancer had reoccurred, however, the trial court’s order seemed to state that plaintiff’s informed consent claim from this later treatment “were barred by the statute of limitations due to her general knowledge of radiation treatment as a treatment for cancer.” The trial court stated that “a reasonable person exercising reasonable diligence with the knowledge Plaintiff had and the position of Plaintiff would know that radiation was a treatment option for her cancer,” but the Court of Appeals wrote that it was “perplexed by this rationale.” The Court pointed out that there was evidence that defendant had advised plaintiff that radiation would not be helpful to her, with the Court stating, “Why, in the face of these communications—which seem to discount the viability of radiation as a proper treatment for her—would [plaintiff] have reason to believe that [defendant’s] alleged nondisclosure about radiation treatment relative to his later care was insufficient?”

The Court concluded that summary judgment should be vacated and the case remanded so that “the trial court [could] clearly state the grounds concerning each claim it is adjudicating[.]”

Rule 56.04 does not allow a trial court to give vague blanket statements to support a summary judgment order. This case is a reminder that if summary judgment is granted in your favor, it is important that the trial court’s order complies with this Rule.

This opinion was released 2.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

Note:  Chapter 47, Section 2 and Chapter 50, Section 3 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.

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