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Statute of Limitations: Personal Injury Claims

Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, California Supreme Court (May 5, 2016)

Although the statute of limitations for a personal injury action is generally two years from the date on which the incident occurred, there is a special statute of limitations in actions “for injury or death against a health care provider based upon such person’s alleged professional negligence.”  Pursuant to CCP section 340.5, the statute of limitations for professional negligence is “three years aftr the date of injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury, whichever occurs first.”  In Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, the California Supreme Court held that, because Plaintiff’s injury arose from the alleged negligence in the use or maintenance of equipment integrally related to her medical diagnosis and treatment, CCP section 340.5 was applicable.

One or Three Year Statute of Limitations?

In this case, plaintiff was a hospital patient who was injured when one of the rails on her hospital bed collapsed while she was attempting to get up.  The rail was raised according to doctor’s orders.  Just under two years after the incident, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the hospital, alleging it negligently “failed to use reasonable care in maintaining [its] premises,” “failed to take reasonable precautions to discover and make safe a dangerous condition on the premises,” and “failed to give Plaintiff a reasonable and adequate warning of a dangerous condition so Plaintiff could have avoided foreseeable harm.”

The hospital demurred, alleging the complaint was barred by section 340.5’s statute of limitations for suits alleging professional negligence as it was filed more than one year after the incident.  The trial court agreed with the hospital, sustaining the demurrer without leave to amend, dismissing the lawsuit.  Plaintiff appealed.  The Court of Appeal reversed, holding the hospital’s alleged failure to use reasonable care in maintaining the premises and alleged failure to take reasonable precautions to make a dangerous condition safe “sounds in ordinary negligence because the negligence did not occur in the rendering of professional services.”

Supreme Court Appeal

On Appeal, the Supreme Court identified the central dispute as being whether negligence in the use or maintenance of hospital equipment or premises constitutes professional negligence as identified in CCP section 340.5.  More specifically, the Court examined whether alleged negligence in the use or maintenance of hospital equipment is “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services.”

Plaintiff argued “professional services” refers to “services involving a job requiring a particularized degree of medical skill.”  It was her position that maintenance of the hospital premises and equipment did not require “specialized education, training or skill” and, therefore, could not qualify as negligence “in the rendering of professional services.”  The hospital, on the other hand, argued section 340.5 is triggered if the alleged negligent act occurred in the rendering of services for which the health care provider is licensed, citing Murillo v. Good Samaritan Hospital (1979) 99 Cal.App.3d 50.

The Court opined plaintiff’s interpretation of section 340.5 was too narrow while the hospital’s interpretation was far too broad.  Rather, section 340.5 “requires [the Court] to draw a distinction between the professional obligations of hospitals in the rendering of medical care to their patients and the obligations hospitals have, simply by virtue of operating facilities open to the public, to maintain their premises in a manner that preserves the well-being and safety of all users.”

Is the Equipment Related to Medical Care?

Citing Lee v. Hanley (2015) 61 Cal.4th 1225, 1238, the Court concluded whether negligence in maintaining hospital equipment or premises qualifies as professional negligence depends on the nature of the relationship between the equipment or premises in question and the provision of medical care.  The Court pointed out there are areas and furniture provided for the comfort and convenience of patients and visitors that “play no part in the patient’s medical diagnosis or treatment.”  Such areas and equipment would not be covered by section 340.6.

One Year Professional Negligence Statute of Limitations Applies

With respect to the instant case, the Court held plaintiff was essentially arguing the hospital failed to properly implement the doctor’s order, which was based on a medical assessment of her condition, that the rails on her bed be raised.  Plaintiff’s injuries, therefore, resulted from the hospital’s alleged negligence in the use or maintenance of equipment integrally related to her medical diagnosis and treatment.  In this regard, the Court found the alleged negligence occurred “in the rendering of professional services and therefore constituted professional negligence for the purposes of section 340.5.  Thus, the Court held the trial court correctly determined that section 340.5 was the applicable statute of limitations and reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Terrill is Senior Counsel at Tyson & Mendes.  Ms. Terrill specializes in the areas of construction defect and construction injury claims.  Contact Elizabeth at 858.263.4113 or eterrill@tysonmendes.com.