The Court of Appeals of North Carolina (“North Carolina Appellate Court”) held in its opinion filed on December 15, 2020 in a medical malpractice case alleging that the defendants failed to provide appropriate follow-up care or refer the plaintiff to a specialist after a test showed that his PSA level was abnormally high, leading to metastatic prostate cancer: “the motion to dismiss was converted to a motion for summary judgment, requiring remand for a reasonable opportunity to gather and present evidence, and therefore do not address the underlying statute of limitations issue.”
The Underlying Facts
Charles Blue (“Blue”) filed a North Carolina medical malpractice complaint against his long-time primary care physicians, alleging that in January 2012, one of the defendants ordered a prostate specific antigen (“PSA”) blood test to help determine the likelihood of Blue having prostate cancer. Blue’s PSA test result indicated he had 87.9 nanograms per milliliter of PSA enzymes in his blood (a PSA of 4 nanograms per milliliter is considered abnormally high for most men and may indicate the need for further evaluation with a prostate biopsy). The defendants did not provide any follow-up care or referrals despite receiving a copy of the test results.
On March 22, 2018, Blue had another test indicating his PSA level was 1,763 nanograms per milliliter and soon thereafter was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer. Blue’s North Carolina medical malpractice complaint alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to follow up or refer him to a specialist after receiving his 2012 PSA test results, leading to Blue developing metastatic cancer and causing him to have a shortened life expectancy and to suffer pain, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.
The defendants filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in their Answer on the basis of the statute of limitations, arguing that the alleged negligence occurred in January 2012, meaning the three-year statute of limitations had expired prior to Blue filing the lawsuit. The defendants also alleged Blue’s contributory negligence.
At the hearing on the motion to dismiss, the parties submitted memoranda of law and orally argued their positions. Blue’s memorandum of law and oral arguments included facts not included in his Complaint. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss after “having heard arguments of parties and counsel for the parties and having reviewed the court file, pleadings, and memorandums of law submitted by both parties.” The plaintiff filed an appeal.
North Carolina Appellate Court Opinion
The North Carolina Appellate Court stated, “Here, nothing indicates the trial court did not consider the facts presented beyond the pleadings. Instead, the terms of the order indicate the trial court considered matters beyond the pleadings in considering the arguments of the parties and reviewing memoranda of law. Although Defendants informed the trial court the facts went beyond those in the Complaint, the trial court never excluded any facts at the hearing or in the terms of the order. The failure to exclude the matters that went beyond the facts contained in the Complaint converted the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56.”
“When a Rule 12 motion is converted into a Rule 56 motion “all parties shall be given reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion by Rule 56.” N.C.G.S. §§ 1A-1, Rule 12(b) & (c) (2019). Here, because the trial court did not recognize the conversion of the Rule 12 motion into a Rule 56 motion, no such opportunity was given to the parties. In particular, Defendants strictly adhered to the evidentiary constraints of Rule 12 and attempted to keep the motion restricted to allegations in the Complaint; whereas, Blue presented matters beyond the Rule 12 evidentiary limitations. In the absence of a reasonable opportunity for the parties to gather and present pertinent evidence for a Rule 56 motion, it would be improper for us to make a determination of the statute of limitations issue on the current evidence because “we believe that such a determination cannot properly be made at the present time in light of the incomplete factual record that currently exists.””
Source Blue v. Bhiro, No. COA20-159.
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