In a May 9, 2013 decision by the Supreme Court of Tennessee (“Tennessee Supreme Court”), the Court held that the parents of a child who died allegedly as a result of medical negligence in a county hospital filed their medical malpractice case too late and therefore were precluded from having their medical malpractice claims determined by a jury.
The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the county hospital was a governmental entity for which Tennessee’s Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”) requires claims to be filed within one year but in this case the medical malpractice plaintiffs had filed their medical malpractice case approximately fifteen months after their son’s death, pursuant to the provisions of the Tennessee Medical Malpractice Review Board and Claims Act (“Medical Malpractice Act”) (Tennessee Code Annotated sections 29-26-115 to -122).
The Medical Malpractice Act
Section 29-26-121(a) of the Medical Malpractice Act requires any person asserting a potential medical malpractice claim to provide notice to each health care provider at least sixty days before filing a complaint. When the sixty-day notice is provided, Section 29-26-121(c) provides that the “applicable statutes of limitations and repose shall be extended [120 days] from the date of expiration of the statute of limitations and statute of repose applicable to that provider.”
The GTLA provides general immunity to governmental entities causing injury to an individual during the exercise or discharge of their duties (Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-20-201(a)). However, there is no immunity when injuries are caused by the negligence of government employees acting within the scope of their employment. But since waiver of immunity is in derogation of the common law, any claim for damages brought under the GTLA must be “in strict compliance with the terms” of the statute. Therefore, the GTLA’s statute of limitations (i.e., suits against a governmental entity “must be commenced within twelve (12) months after the cause of action arises”) requires strict compliance.
The Interplay Between The GTLA And The Medical Malpractice Act
The Tennessee Supreme Court had to decide the interplay between the GTLA and the Medical Malpractice Act to determine whether Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) extends the statute of limitations by an additional 120 days in the medical malpractice plaintiffs’ case, which is governed by the GTLA.
The Tennessee Supreme Court held “In light of this presumption [that “the General Assembly was aware of our prior decisions at the time it enacted the 2008 and 2009 amendments to the Medical Malpractice Act,” including the following: “if statutes of general application that conflict with a provision of the GTLA are sought to be applied to GTLA cases, the intent of the General Assembly must be expressly stated in the text of the statutory provision”], it is reasonable to conclude that by choosing not to use express language applying Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) to cases governed by the GTLA, the legislature did not intend to apply the 120-day extension to the GTLA statute of limitations.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court held “The pre-suit notice provision establishes a deadline for giving notice of the suit but does not affect the deadline for commencing the suit.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court noted in a footnote to its decision that the Tennessee General Assembly amended the Medical Malpractice Act in 2011 to modify the definition of “health care liability action” to include “claims against the state or a political subdivision thereof.” However, because the 2011 amendment was not at issue in the case it was deciding, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “we will await a more appropriate case in which to determine whether the language of the 2011 amendment clearly expresses a legislative intent to extend the statute of limitations in GTLA cases.”
The Tennessee Supreme Court also stated in a footnote to its decision, “Neither party has addressed the issue of the applicability of the sixty-day notice requirement in cases governed by the GTLA. Although we have previously held that failure to comply with the sixty-day pre-suit notice requirement of section 29-26-121(a) may result in dismissal of the medical malpractice claim absent a showing of extraordinary cause, we have not previously addressed whether the sixty-day pre-suit notice is required in GTLA cases.”
Read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion in this case by clicking here.
If you or someone you know may have been injured as a result of medical malpractice in Tennessee or in another U.S. state, you should promptly seek the advice of a Tennessee medical malpractice attorney or a medical malpractice attorney in your state who may agree to investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and file a medical malpractice case on your behalf, if appropriate.
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