May 12, 2022

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina (“North Carolina Appellate Court”) discussed the continuing course of treatment doctrine in its opinion filed on March 1, 2022 in a North Carolina dental malpractice case where the plaintiff alleged that during a wisdom tooth extraction performed by Dr. Morris on November 9, 2016, substantial pressure was placed on her jaw during the procedure after which Dr. Morris informed her that a small piece of bone in her jaw had broken during the procedure. Dr. Morris and Dr. Fox’s clinical notes, taken following the procedure, state that a “[l]arge portion of [the] left maxillary tuberosity fractured off with [the] tooth during extraction . . . .”

Continuing Course Of Treatment Doctrine

The continuing course of treatment doctrine rests on the theory that so long as the relationship of surgeon and patient is continued, the surgeon was guilty of malpractice during that entire relationship for not repairing the damage he had done. The doctrine tolls the running of the statute for the period between the original negligent act and the ensuing discovery and correction of its consequences; the claim still accrues at the time of the original negligent act or omission. Thus, the statute of limitations begins to run when defendant’s treatment of plaintiff ended or the time at which the plaintiff knew or should have known of his injury, whichever comes first.

To benefit from the continuing course of treatment doctrine, a plaintiff must show (1) a continuous relationship with a physician and (2) subsequent treatment from that physician. This subsequent treatment must be for the same injury. The North Carolina Appellate Court has determined that letters written by a surgeon to a patient encouraging the patient to seek follow-up treatment with the surgeon did not constitute treatment.

The North Carolina Appellate Court held in the dental malpractice case it was deciding: “In the case sub judice, Ms. Harrison’s last follow-up visit with Dr. Morris for her jaw pain occurred on 30 January 2017. Following this Court’s logic and analysis in Hensell, the correspondence containing treatment updates between Dr. Morris and Ms. Harrison’s physical therapist and oral surgeon do not constitute “treatment” for purposes of the continuing course of treatment doctrine. Thus, assuming Ms. Harrison did not discover her injury earlier, the latest the statute of limitation began to run in this case was 30 January 2017; and the statute of limitation would subsequently expire on 30 January 2020. Ms. Harrison filed her Motion to Extend the Statute of Limitation on 31 January 2020, one day after the latest the statute of limitation could have expired. As a result, Ms. Harrison’s claim is barred by the statute of limitation.”

Harrison v. Morris, No. COA21-66.

If you or a loved one may have been harmed as a result of dental malpractice in North Carolina or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a North Carolina medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your dental negligence claim for you and represent you or your loved one in a dental malpractice case, if appropriate.

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