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Supreme Court of Missouri Upholds 10-Year Statute of Repose for Foreign-Object Medical Malpractice Claims

Ambers-Phillips v. SSM DePaul Health Center, 2015 WL 1926012 (Mo.banc. April 28, 2015)

The Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss a plaintiff’s foreign-object medical malpractice claim against a health care provider for leaving foreign objects in the patient’s abdomen during surgery almost 14 years earlier.

In 1999, the plaintiff was in a car accident and underwent an exploratory laparotomy at SSM DePaul Hospital. Nearly 14 years later, in 2013, she underwent another exploratory laparotomy at a different St. Louis-area hospital because she was having pain in her side. During the surgery, her physicians found four foreign objects that had been left inside her abdomen during the 1999 surgery. Plaintiff sued SSM DePaul in 2013, alleging medical malpractice.

The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s claims on several grounds, including that they were barred by §516.105, RSMo, the 10-year statute of repose for claims of medical negligence involving the leaving of foreign objects in the body. Plaintiff raised a constitutional challenge that the statute violated due process, equal protection, and the Missouri Constitution’s open courts and special legislation provisions, which the trial court denied. Plaintiff appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Missouri in light of the constitutional challenge to the validity of §516.105.

On appeal, plaintiff argued the trial court erred in not holding the 10-year statute of repose for foreign-object medical malpractice claims was equitably tolled until plaintiff discovered the wrong, analogizing to the tolling of certain statutes of limitations until the wrong has been discovered. The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed, pointing out the differences between statutes of limitations, which may be subject to equitable tolling in certain circumstances, and statutes of repose, which are not. Statutes of repose begin to run on the date of the allegedly tortious act and provide an absolute deadline beyond which suit may not be brought. The court found that to toll a statute of repose would disregard its basic purpose – that of providing a final time limit beyond which suit is foreclosed.

The Supreme Court of Missouri reaffirmed its prior cases rejecting the plaintiff’s alternative argument that statutes of repose are unconstitutional if not subject to equitable tolling.

This case is significant for health care provider defendants because it confirms Missouri’s firm statute of repose for foreign-object medical negligence claims, regardless of the date of discovery of the wrong. The court’s analysis is also instructive on the legal differences between the purposes and characteristics of statutes of limitations vs. statutes of repose.