In its opinion filed on December 5, 2019, the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico (“New Mexico Supreme Court”) held, “While the MRC [New Mexico Medical Review Commission] application does not describe specific acts of malpractice directly committed by Lovelace [Lovelace Health System, Inc.], the application does describe clearly and specifically the acts and omissions of named employees and physicians working in Lovelace hospitals. This is sufficient as a matter of law.”
The Underlying Facts
The plaintiff’s MRC application stated that on June 17, 2011, the plaintiff, who was pregnant, went to Lovelace Medical Center with sharp pain in her lower abdomen and left pelvic area, together with vaginal spotting. Hormone studies confirmed the plaintiff’s pregnancy, but after reading an ultrasound, the Lovelace doctors erroneously concluded that the sac seen in the plaintiff’s uterine cavity was a “false pregnancy” and that the plaintiff had an ectopic pregnancy on the right ovary.
Based on these erroneous findings, the doctors sent the plaintiff to Lovelace Women’s Hospital in an ambulance for treatment. At Lovelace Women’s Hospital, Dr. Chongsiriwatana performed a diagnostic laparoscopy for the presumed ectopic pregnancy on the right ovary. Finding no ectopic pregnancy on the right ovary, Dr. Chongsiriwatana diagnosed the presence of a right ovarian cyst and treated the plaintiff with methotrexate without obtaining the plaintiff’s informed consent.
The methotrexate was administered notwithstanding its association with a high risk of birth defects, without first obtaining ultrasounds or other tests to determine whether the plaintiff was in fact pregnant. The plaintiff returned to Lovelace Women’s Hospital six days later because she was still experiencing pain. Belatedly, Dr. Chongsiriwatana ordered hormone tests and an ultrasound, and the ultrasound showed that the plaintiff had a normal pregnancy. Because the plaintiff was treated with methotrexate, the plaintiff’s pregnancy was aborted.
The plaintiff filed a complaint for medical negligence, respondeat superior, and damages, naming Lovelace, Women’s Specialists of New Mexico, Ltd. (Women’s Specialists), and Kristina Chongsiriwatana, M.D., as defendants. Lovelace filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s claims against Lovelace were barred by the statute of limitations. The plaintiff responded that her complaint against Lovelace was not barred because prior to filing the complaint she filed an application to the MRC pursuant to the New Mexico Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), NMSA 1978, §§ 41-5-1 to -29 (1976, as amended through 2015), thereby tolling the statute of limitations.
The parties agreed that although Lovelace is not a qualified provider under the MMA, if Lovelace was named in the MRC application, the running of the limitations period was effectively tolled. However, the parties disagreed on whether Lovelace was actually named in the MRC application – the plaintiff contending that it was and Lovelace contending that it was not.
The district court converted Lovelace’s motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment under Rule 1-012(C) NMRA. The district court ruled that “Lovelace was not named in the [MRC] application” as required by Section 41-5-15(B)(1), stating that “there are no dates and circumstances suggesting malpractice, negligence, alleged acts or respondeat superior on behalf of Lovelace.” The district court therefore concluded that “the statute of limitations was not tolled as to Lovelace” and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against Lovelace. The plaintiff appealed.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that “if a plaintiff wishes to utilize the tolling provision in Section 41-5-22 against particular providers, then he or she must identify the alleged act or acts of malpractice against those particular providers.” Concluding that the plaintiff’s MRC application failed to meet this standard of pleading, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that the tolling provision did not apply and affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against Lovelace. The New Mexico Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s petition for a writ of certiorari, and reversed.
New Mexico Supreme Court Opinion
The New Mexico Supreme Court stated that submission of an application to the MRC pursuant to Section 41-5-15(B) tolls the running of the applicable limitations period with respect to both qualified and nonqualified providers. The New Mexico Supreme Court further stated, “The scenario clearly described in Plaintiff’s MRC application represents what Plaintiff contends is medical malpractice on the part of Lovelace and its doctors … Consistent with Section 41-5-15(B)(1), Plaintiff’s application to the MRC clearly “nam[es]” Lovelace, and the application recites “a brief statement of the facts” describing “the dates and the circumstances, so far as they are known, of the alleged act or acts of malpractice[.]” While the MRC application does not describe specific acts of malpractice directly committed by Lovelace, the application does describe clearly and specifically the acts and omissions of named employees and physicians working in Lovelace hospitals. This is sufficient as a matter of law.”
Romero v. Lovelace Health System, Inc., No. S-1-SC-36764.
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