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Court Applies Two-Year Statute of Limitations for Health Care Providers to Bar Plaintiff's Claim Despite Attempt to Label It as One for Ordinary Negligence

In Payne v. Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a rehabilitation hospital on statute of limitations grounds where the plaintiff filed her personal injury claim approximately two and one-half years after the date of injury. No. ED109560, 2022 Mo. App. LEXIS 37 (Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2022). Payne was receiving intensive inpatient stroke rehabilitation at the defendant’s facility and confined to a wheelchair. One day, while she was unattended, she fell out of bed and sustained injury. Payne argued that her claim was not time-barred because her injury arose out of ordinary negligence, rather than medical negligence, so her claim was governed by a five-year limitations period rather than the two-year limitations period applicable to medical negligence actions. The appellate court’s ruling confirms that, regardless of how a plaintiff may characterize her claim, any claim arising out of the provision of health care services must be brought within the two-year limitations period proscribed under § 516.105, RSMo.

The central issue on appeal was whether the alleged negligence “related to health care” and, therefore must be brought within two years from the date of her injury as required under § 516.105. At both the trial and appellate levels, Payne asserted that her claims were for general negligence not medical negligence, because she was not receiving health care services at the time of her fall injury. Therefore, Payne argued, her suit was outside of the purview of § 516.105’s two-year limitations period. Rehabilitation Institute argued that because the plaintiff’s cause of action “involve[d] conduct consistent with medical malpractice and negligence,” her claims fell under § 516.105 and were time-barred.

The court first turned to Supreme Court of Missouri analysis of § 516.105 in Robinson v. Health Midwest Development Group, where the Court specified: “Any act or omission related to the care, custody, or treatment of the patient, whether plead as ordinary negligence or negligence relating to malpractice is covered under section 516.105.” 58 S.W.3d 519, 522 (Mo. banc 2001) (emphasis added). Thus, courts must focus not on the label a plaintiff applies to her claim but the substance of the claim to decide this issue.

In support of her “ordinary negligence” argument, Payne cited Beard v. Pemiscot Memorial Health Systems, wherein the court found that a negligence claim arising out of a slip and fall incident in a shower at an inpatient psychiatric facility did not fall within the purview of § 516.105 and was not time barred event though it was filed more than two years after the injury date. 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 229859 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 12, 2019). In Beard, § 516.105 did not apply because the injury was entirely incidental to the inpatient psychiatric care plaintiff was receiving and did not arise out of the provision of psychiatric health care services. Id.

The court distinguished Beard in that Payne was treated at the defendant’s facility for deficits from a stroke, which made her a high fall risk and necessitated 24-hour rehabilitative nursing care. Unlike the plaintiff in Beard, Payne’s fall risk was not merely incidental to the care she was receiving but was a central reason for which she was admitted for convalescent care. The fact that Payne was not receiving hands on therapy services at the precise moment that she fell was inconsequential to the determination of medical vs. ordinary negligence.

The court found the facts of Dunagan v. Shalom more analogous. 976 S.W.2d 285 (Mo. App. W.D. 1998). In Dunagan, a plaintiff with Alzheimer’s disease who lived in a nursing home fell on five separate occasions and was injured. Id. Dunagan argued the nursing home’s negligence arose out of safety failings rather than medical treatment and, therefore, § 516.105’s two-year limitations period did not apply to bar his claim. Id. The appellate court found that because the plaintiff was admitted to the nursing facility to receive 24-hour care for his medical conditions, his injuries related to the provision of medical care, and, thus, were time barred under § 516.105. Id.

In Payne, much like Dunagan, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s finding that the claim labeled as “ordinary negligence” nevertheless arose out of the provision of health care and was time barred under § 516.105. This decision confirms that, regardless of how a negligence claim is plead, so long as it arises out of the provision of health care, the two-year limitations period applies. The Payne court refused to weaken an important statutory protection for health care providers. The statute of limitations benefits health care providers because it curtails the timeline for suit filing and ensures health care providers will not be forced to defend against stale claims. The Payne decision makes sure this protection will remain, even when plaintiff counsel attempts to evade the statute of limitations with artful pleading.