The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) stated in its opinion filed on July 2, 2021: “In August 2017, Antoinette Lundy filed a lawsuit on behalf of her infant child, D.B., asserting medical tort claims against several defendants. Unfortunately for Lundy and D.B., the applicable statute of limitations had expired the year before.”
The Underlying Facts
On May 2, 2014, Antoinette Lundy gave birth to D.B. at the Regional One Medical Center in Memphis, Tennessee. During labor, D.B.’s oxygen and blood flow were restricted and, as a result, he sustained serious brain damage. Believing that the doctors were responsible for her son’s injuries, Lundy sought advice from a law firm in December 2014. After reviewing the facts and law, the firm advised Lundy that she had no case because it was too early to determine the extent of D.B.’s injuries. The firm closed its file on D.B.’s case in April 2015. In September 2016, Lundy retained new counsel.
Seven months later, on April 28, 2017, Lundy’s new counsel sent letters to entities and individuals she planned to sue for D.B.’s injuries, including the Regional One Medical Center, Lundy’s prenatal care facility Christ Community Health Services, and one of CCHS’s employees, Dr. William G. Mullinax, who helped deliver D.B.
Shortly thereafter, the United States Department of Health and Human Services sent Lundy’s new counsel a letter noting that CCHS and its covered employees were deemed employees of the federal government for purposes of tort coverage under the Federal Torts Claims Act. The letter also notified counsel that the exclusive remedy against CCHS and its employees was an action pursuant to the FTCA, and that all administrative remedies would need to be exhausted before such an action could be filed.
Nonetheless, Lundy filed suit in state court on August 22, 2017, alleging state causes of action for negligence. She also filed an administrative complaint on October 13, 2017. On November 3, 2017, CCHS removed the state case to federal district court. On December 6, 2017, the United States moved to substitute itself as a defendant in place of CCHS and Dr. Mullinax. The district court granted the motion. It also granted the Government’s later-filed motion to dismiss because Lundy had not exhausted her administrative remedies.
Five months later, Lundy filed an amended complaint substituting the United States as a defendant in place of CCHS and Dr. Mullinax. The Government quickly moved for summary judgment, arguing that Lundy’s tort claim was barred by the FTCA’s two-year statute of limitations. The district court agreed and found that there was no reason to toll the limitations period. Lundy appealed.
Federal Appellate Court Opinion
The Federal Appellate Court stated, “There is no dispute that Lundy filed this action after the FTCA’s applicable two-year statute of limitations period. So the only issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in choosing not to toll that limitations period.”
Equitable tolling allows a court to extend a statute of limitations period when a litigant’s failure to file suit within that period was unavoidable. The party asserting its application carries the burden of establishing its relevance in any given case. For purposes of determining whether equitable tolling applies, the action or inaction of an attorney is attributable to his or her client.
Five factors are typically considered when evaluating whether equitable tolling is appropriate: (1) the plaintiff’s lack of notice of the filing requirement; (2) the plaintiff’s lack of constructive knowledge of the filing requirement; (3) the plaintiff’s diligence in pursuing her rights; (4) an absence of prejudice to the defendant; and (5) the plaintiff’s reasonableness in remaining ignorant of the particular legal requirement.
In the case it was deciding, the Federal Appellate Court stated: “[T]o the extent Lundy contends that knowing CCHS’s federal status was not enough to establish knowledge of Dr. Mullinax’s status, she is mistaken. The publicly available address for Dr. Mullinax’s place of work was a CCHS location in Tennessee … That neither Lundy nor her earlier counsel discovered the notice of federal designation publicly advertised on CCHS’s website evinces a lack of diligence … There is simply no evidence in the record establishing Lundy’s or her first law firm’s due diligence before the FTCA’s limitations period expired. That lack of information is detrimental to Lundy’s claim.”
The Federal Appellate Court concluded: “Lundy fails to show that her inability to comply with the FTCA’s two-year statute of limitations was due to unavoidable circumstances beyond her control.”
Source D.B. v. Shelby County Health Care Corporation, Case No. 20-1483.
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