California Supreme Court Reviews Statute of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Case

Recently, the California Supreme Court addressed the statute of limitations for a personal injury action alleging professional negligence against health care providers.  Unlike most personal injury actions, which must be filed within two years of the date of the underlying act or omission, professional negligence actions must be brought within three years after the date of the injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers the injury, whichever is first.  In the case before the Supreme Court, the issue was whether the special limitations governed the plaintiff’s claims against a hospital. On March 5, 2009, plaintiff Catherine Flores, a patient at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (PIH) in Whittier, suffered injuries when one of the rails on her hospital bed collapsed.  She was trying to get up from her hospital bed, and as the rail collapsed, she fell to the floor.  Her doctor had ordered the rail to be up after conducting an assessment of her medical conditions.  Ms. Flores sued the hospital for negligently failing to inspect and maintain the equipment. Her claim was filed just under two years after the date of the underlying incident, March 2, 2011.

PIH demurred to the complaint, arguing that the complaint was governed by California Civil Procedure Code section 340.5 for lawsuits alleging professional negligence and was therefore untimely.  Ms. Flores contended that PIH’s negligence was ordinary, not professional. She claimed her complaint was subject to the standard two-year limitations period for personal injury actions. The trial court agreed with PIH and sustained the demurrer.

Ms. Flores then appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed on the ground that PIH’s alleged failure to use reasonable care to maintain its premises and to take reasonable precautions to make a dangerous condition safe lay in ordinary negligence. The negligence did not take place in the rendering of professional services.  PIH appealed to the California Supreme Court, and they granted the petition for review.

The Supreme Court stated that for most of the 20th century, the same one-year limitations period applied to medical malpractice claims and personal injury claims.  Courts held that professional malpractice cases had a limitations period that began to run when the plaintiff discovered his injury or should have discovered his injury through reasonable diligence.  The Legislature then codified this delayed discovery rule in section 340.5, providing that the statute of limitations was one year from the date the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered the injury, but there was an outer limit of four years after the date of the injury.

The Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) amended the former law, bringing the outer limit from four years to three. It also expanded the coverage of the provision for professional negligence to include actions against health care providers.  MICRA defined the term as a “negligent act or omission by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services which leads to personal injury or death.”  Then, the legislature enacted Civil Code section 335.1, which provides a two-year limitations period for most tort actions.

Here, since Ms. Flores was aware of her injury at the time it occurred, the issue was whether her claim was subject to the two-year statute of limitations, in which case it was timely, or the one-year statute of limitations under section 340.5, in which case it was not.

The court stated the difference between “ordinary” negligence and “professional malpractice” can be difficult to ascertain at times.  Courts of appeal have drawn the line differently in lawsuits involving alleged negligence using hospital equipment or occurring on hospital premises. Under section 340.5, professional negligence is defined as having four elements:  (1) a negligent act or omission by a health care provider in rendering professional services; (2) causing injury or wrongful death; (3) provided the services are under the scope of the provider’s services; (4) and not restricted by the agency or hospital.  Here, the issue was whether the negligent act took place in the rendering of professional services.

Ms. Flores stated that the phrase “professional services” included services that require a level of medical skill.  Since maintaining hospital equipment and premises does not require specialized skill or training, she claimed that is not professional negligence.  PIH contended that the question was whether the negligent act took place in the rendering of services for which the health care provider is licensed.

The court held that neither party captured the true meaning of section 340.5. The section does not apply only to tasks requiring advanced medical skills and training.  The court used the example of a doctor determining that a patient required a special diet.  If a hospital employee negligently fed the patient the wrong food, the hospital inflicted an injury in the rendering of professional services to this patient. While the court agreed with PIH that the test was whether skill was employed in delivering services to the patient, they narrowed the rule such that hospitals cannot be held negligent for performing duties that are owed to all users, including visitors, simply by operating a public facility. In other words, section 340.5 does not apply to ordinary negligence that happens to occur on hospital property.

The Supreme Court stated the rule that whether negligence in maintaining hospital premises or equipment is deemed “professional negligence” depends on the relationship between the premises or equipment and the care provided to the injured individual.  Section 340.5 does not extend to include the negligent maintenance of the premises if it is incidental to the medical care of a patient. The court gave the example of a collapsing chair in a waiting room of a hospital.  If someone is injured from that fall, the hospital’s duty regarding the chair is not different than for other homes or businesses that have visitors. Section 340.5 would not apply to this injury.

Here, Ms. Flores alleged that PIH failed to properly implement her doctor’s order, based on an assessment of her condition, which required raising the bed rails.  Her injury resulted from PIH’s alleged negligence in using or maintaining the equipment integrally related to Ms. Flores’ medical diagnosis and treatment.  When a doctor orders hospital bed rails to be raised to accommodate the needs of a patient’s medical condition, and the patient is injured from the negligent use of the rails, the negligence occurs in the rendering of professional services and falls under section 340.5.

The trial court had correctly determined that section 340.5 applied to the claim, and the Court of Appeal erred in holding otherwise. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

The personal injury attorneys at Sharifi Firm provide guidance and representation to injured individuals throughout California who are seeking compensation following an accident.  We provide a free consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court of Appeals Reviews Summary Judgment in Favor of Doctors and Healthcare System in Professional Negligence Lawsuit,  Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 24, 2015

California Court of Appeals Rules that Statute of Limitations is Tolled Upon Payment in Medical Malpractice Action, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 20, 2015

Contact Information