Factual Background and Procedural History
In Curtis et al. v. Palomar Health et al., plaintiffs filed suit based on the alleged wrongful death of their mother and negligent conduct by Palomar Hospital and its staff.[i] However, the suit was dismissed because of the plaintiffs’ failure to comply with the Government Claims Act, which sets forth timing requirements that cannot be circumvented. The Act requires that any individual seeking to file suit against the government provide notice of their intent to sue within six months of a claimed injury.[ii]
The plaintiffs contended that the death of their mother, which occurred on December 26, 2018, was the result of medical malpractice on the part of Palomar Hospital. Because Palomar Hospital is owned by Palomar Health, which is a public entity, the Act applied to the plaintiffs’ claim. The Act requires that the clock begins running once a potential plaintiff has reason to believe that a negligent or wrongful act occurred.
Here, the defense provided evidence that the plaintiffs “first suspected that something was wrong” at the time of their mother’s death on December 26, 2018[iii], but failed to provide notice to the defense until December 20, 2019, which was well outside the six months contemplated by the Act.[iv] In response, the Hospital returned the claim to the plaintiffs, notifying them that their “only recourse at this time is to apply without delay […] for leave to present a late [c]laim.”[v] Then, in February 2020, the plaintiffs mailed a request to present a late claim, but no response was given.
The plaintiffs then proceeded to file a lawsuit against Palomar Hospital, but the lawsuit was dismissed on a motion for summary judgment on the basis of the plaintiffs’ noncompliance with the Act. The plaintiffs then appealed.[vi]
In their appeal, the plaintiffs repeated the same arguments they made in opposition to the motion for summary judgment, arguing both substantial compliance and that their claim did not accrue on the day their mother died because the hospital stated nothing improper occurred in caring for her as a patient.
The panel disagreed, noting that a wrongful death claim generally accrues on the date of death, and that the plaintiffs’ claim was simply not timely.[vii] Further, the panel held that ignorance does not delay or toll a cause of action.
Significantly, the plaintiffs tried to rely on the substantial compliance doctrine to argue that their claims should not be dismissed. However, the panel clarified that substantial compliance relates to the signature and content requirements of a claim, and not to the timely presentation requirement.[viii]
The panel also made clear that although at times there are ways to cure or request relief, these filings must also be timely. The plaintiffs’ application for relief was outside the acceptable time period as it was filed after the one-year time period for the filing of a late claim. When a late filing occurs, the party responsible must submit a motion to obtain leave from the court; this was also not done by the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs did try to craft creative arguments that they lacked knowledge of the medical staff’s employer within enough time to provide notice of intent to sue under the Act, but this argument was also rejected. The panel reasoned that if a lawsuit against the public entity cannot move forward, the same applies to any of its employees.[ix]
The plaintiffs here encountered multiple procedural deficiencies that ultimately could not be cured. The panel also stressed that if an argument is not raised at summary judgment level, it is waived. The court rejected public policy arguments that were not timely raised and emphasized that the plaintiffs had ample time to ascertain the medical staff’s employment status before the time lapsed to file an intent to sue a government entity claim.
Procedural requirements such as those set forth in the Act can be helpful to defendants at the summary judgment stage. Of note here, it was the plaintiffs’ own responses in discovery that provided evidentiary support for defense counsel who moved for, and were granted, summary judgment. Defendants and their counsel should craft their discovery with an eye toward any advantage available, including time bars such as those at issue here.
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[i] Curtis et al. v. Palomar Health et al., State of California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District. Case Number D073266