California Appellate Court Holds Jury Instruction Regarding Statute Of Limitations Was Proper In Medical Malpractice Case

The January 7, 2021 unpublished opinion of the Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District Division Eight held in a California medical malpractice case where the jury determined that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was filed after the one-year statute of limitations had expired: “the cause of action against Yamamoto was within the scope of Appellants’ initial suspicion of medical negligence involving Sade’s death, even if Appellants could not immediately identify all of the tortfeasors involved. Here, Appellants knew Yamamoto provided care for Sade after her transfer and they suspected some form of medical malpractice had caused her death one day after she was born. Under the holding in Knowles, the limitations period commenced as soon as Sade suffered appreciable harm, i.e., her death, which caused Appellants to become suspicious of wrongdoing. At that point, Appellants were required to investigate all potential causes of the harm. (Fox, supra, 35 Cal. 4th at p. 808.) “So long as a suspicion exists, it is clear that the plaintiff must go find the facts; she cannot wait for the facts to find her.” (Jolly, supra, 44 Cal.3d at p. 1111.).”

The Underlying Facts

On July 5, 2014, Plaintiff Smith was admitted to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center–San Pedro (“San Pedro Medical Center”) to give birth to her daughter, Ri’nitha Fort’e, whom the plaintiffs called Sade. Sade was transferred to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center–Torrance (“Torrance Medical Center”) shortly after her birth due to critical respiratory issues.

Yamamoto is a neonatologist at Torrance Medical Center who cared for Sade after her transfer. He updated the plaintiffs as to Sade’s condition throughout the time she was under his care. Sade died on the morning of July 6, 2014.

On April 28, 2015, the plaintiffs timely sued San Pedro Medical Center and the obstetrician who treated Smith, alleging medical malpractice and wrongful death. On June 25, 2015, the plaintiffs filed a doe amendment adding Torrance Medical Center as a defendant. The plaintiffs settled the first lawsuit with all three defendants.

On September 30, 2016, the plaintiffs filed suit against Yamamoto, alleging his negligent treatment of Sade resulted in her death. Among other things, Yamamoto argued the plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred. The trial was bifurcated to allow the statute of limitations issue to be tried first.

A jury trial commenced on February 14, 2019, on the statute of limitations issue. Yamamoto described the circumstances which led to Sade’s transfer to Torrance Medical Center. He also testified he introduced himself to the plaintiffs, updated them about Sade’s condition multiple times, and received their permission to perform various procedures to help her breathe. After her death, he told them an autopsy might help establish a cause of death that was not immediately apparent, such as a congenital defect. The plaintiffs consented to an autopsy.

The Disputed Jury Instruction 

CACI 555 reads: “[Name of defendant] contends that [name of plaintiff]’s lawsuit was not filed within the time set by law. To succeed on this defense, [name of defendant] must prove that before [insert date one year before date of filing], [name of plaintiff] discovered, or knew of facts that would have caused a reasonable person to suspect, that [he/she/nonbinary pronoun] had suffered harm that was caused by someone’s wrongful conduct.”

The plaintiffs argued that the instruction should be changed from “someone’s wrongful conduct” to “Dr. Yamamoto’s wrongful conduct,” arguing that the instruction should specifically reference Yamamoto’s conduct because if it simply read “someone’s wrongful conduct,” the jury could infer San Pedro Medical Center’s wrongful conduct triggered the limitations period as to the claims against Yamamoto.

Yamamoto objected, and the trial court instructed the jury with the original jury instruction, The jury returned its decision that the plaintiffs’ California medical malpractice lawsuit against Yamamoto was filed after the one-year statute of limitations had expired. The plaintiffs’ appealed.

California Appellate Court Opinion

The California Appellate Court held, “We conclude the trial court properly instructed the jury with CACI 555 because it is an accurate statement of the law,” explaining “a cause of action does not accrue based on discovery of wrongdoing by a particular defendant. Instead, the statute of limitations begins to run in a medical malpractice case when a plaintiff suspects “someone” has done something wrong to him or her … the cause of action against Yamamoto was within the scope of Appellants’ initial suspicion of medical negligence involving Sade’s death, even if Appellants could not immediately identify all of the tortfeasors involved. Here, Appellants knew Yamamoto provided care for Sade after her transfer and they suspected some form of medical malpractice had caused her death one day after she was born. Under the holding in Knowles, the limitations period commenced as soon as Sade suffered appreciable harm, i.e., her death, which caused Appellants to become suspicious of wrongdoing. At that point, Appellants were required to investigate all potential causes of the harm … So long as a suspicion exists, it is clear that the plaintiff must go find the facts; she cannot wait for the facts to find her … the plaintiff need not know the legal theories underlying the claim to trigger the statute of limitations. All that is required is that the plaintiff have a reason to suspect a factual basis for the “generic” elements of a cause of action: “wrongdoing, causation, and harm” … Appellant’s suspicion that Sade had died as a result of medical negligence required them to investigate other potential tortfeasors whose medical negligence may have also caused her death.”

Source Smith v. Yamamoto, B296961.

If you or your baby suffered a birth injury (or worse) during labor and/or delivery in California or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a California birth injury attorney, or a birth injury attorney in your state, who may investigate your birth injury claim for you and represent you and your child in a birth injury medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

Click on the “Contact Us Now” tab to the right, visit our website, or call us toll-free in the United States at 800-295-3959 to find birth injury lawyers in your state who may assist you.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, January 28th, 2021 at 5:28 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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