The Court of Appeals of Tennessee (“Tennessee Appellate Court”) ruled on May 26, 2017 that a mother’s medical malpractice claim for the injuries she sustained during the birth of her child was untimely filed, but overruled the trial court’s ruling that the child’s birth injury claim was also untimely filed.
The mother, who had pre-existing myasthenia gravis, went into labor at 39 weeks, during the early morning of June 21, 2012. The mother’s labor progressed slowly throughout the day. As the day wore on, the mother began to exhibit symptoms of exacerbated myasthenia gravis that made it unsafe to continue the labor and deliver the child vaginally. Pulse oximeter readings indicated low levels of oxygen in the mother’s blood, and she reported difficulty breathing on several occasions. At 8:05 p.m., one of the defendant doctors entered the room to give the mother an epidural anesthetic. Although the mother expressed difficulty breathing, the defendant doctor insisted on doing a vaginal exam at 8:16 p.m. During the exam, the mother stopped breathing and went into respiratory and cardiac arrest. The mother was rushed to an operating room where an emergency caesarian section was performed while doctors worked to revive the mother. The child was delivered by cesarean section at approximately 8:30 p.m.
Both the mother and the child suffered serious permanent injuries and brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen during the delivery.
On June 28, 2012, a court order was entered granting temporary legal custody of the child to his maternal grandmother. On November 29, 2012, a court order was entered appointing the mother’s aunt as her conservator.
On April 17, 2015, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a), the Tennessee medical malpractice lawyer for the mother and the child sent letters to the defendant health care providers notifying them of potential health care liability claims against them. The pre-suit notice letters were accompanied by medical authorizations permitting the defendants to obtain the plaintiffs’ medical records from each other but were limited to medical records for January 24, 2012, June 21, 2012, and July 16, 2012.
On September 29, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a health care liability complaint against the defendants alleging that they caused the plaintiffs to suffer permanent injuries by negligently failing to recognize and take appropriate action in response to the mother’s deteriorating condition during her labor on June 21, 2012. The Tennessee medical malpractice complaint alleged that the plaintiffs had complied with the pre-suit notice requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a). Along with the complaint, the plaintiffs filed a certificate of good faith pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26- 122.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6), arguing that the claims advanced by the mother in the complaint were barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to health care liability actions. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116(a). They argued that, although the mother had a court-appointed conservator, the limitations period was not tolled by Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 because the mother had not been adjudicated incompetent at the time her claims accrued. While the defendants acknowledged that the statute of limitations was tolled as to the child’s claims because of his minority, they asserted that all of the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the three-year statute of repose applicable to health care liability actions. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26- 116(a)(3). The defendants argued that the plaintiffs could not rely on Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) to extend the filing period by 120 days because they did not provide sufficient pre-suit notice of their claims. Specifically, they argued that the medical authorizations provided with the plaintiffs’ pre-suit notice did not afford them access to relevant medical records for prenatal treatment that the mother received prior to the date of the delivery.
The trial court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Tennessee Appellate Court Decision
The Tennessee Appellate Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the discovery rule did not delay the accrual of the plaintiffs’ claims. The Tennessee Appellate Court stated that having determined that the plaintiffs’ claims accrued on June 21, 2012, it must consider whether Tennessee’s legal incapacity statute applied to toll the statute of limitations as to their claims. Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106. The parties agree that the statute tolled the limitations period as to the child’s claims because of his minority; however, they dispute whether it also tolled the limitations period as to the mother’s claims.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-106 requires that an individual be “adjudicated incompetent” at the time his or her cause of action accrued in order to toll the statute of limitations. The Tennessee Appellate Court held that the language of the incapacity statute is clear and unambiguous: the phrase “adjudicated incompetent” clearly contemplates a judicial determination of incompetence, and the past tense “adjudicated” and the phrase “at the time the cause of action accrued” clearly indicates that the judicial determination of incompetence must occur prior to accrual of the cause of action.
The Tennessee Appellate Court held that the mother’s claims accrued on June 21, 2012, and she was “adjudicated incompetent” on November 29, 2012. Therefore, the Tennessee Appellate Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 did not apply to toll the statute of limitations as to the mother’s claims.
The Tennessee Appellate Court held that even if the limitations period had been extended by 120 days pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), the last day on which the mother’s claims could have been filed was October 19, 2013. The Tennessee Appellate Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the mother’s claims in the September 29, 2015 complaint based on expiration of the statute of limitations.
As to the child’s birth injury medical malpractice claim, the Tennessee Appellate Court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing the child’s claims based on expiration of the statute of repose. The negligent acts and omissions on which the plaintiffs’ claims are based occurred on June 21, 2012, and the three-year statute of repose began to run on that date. While the child did not file his claims within three years of that date, he provided the defendants with pre-suit notice of his claims as provided in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a) on April 17, 2015. As such, the statute of repose was extended by 120 days to October 19, 2015 pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), and the child’s claims, filed on September 29, 2015, were timely. The Tennessee Appellate Court therefore reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the child’s claims based on expiration of the statute of repose.
Source Woodruff v. Walker, No. W2016-01895-COA-R3-CV.
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