California Appeals Court Allows Claim That Patient Froze To Death In Hospital Morgue

162017_132140396847214_292624_nOn April 2, 2014, the Court of Appeals of the State of California Second Appellate District Division Four (“Appeals Court”) reinstated claims against a California hospital by the relatives of a woman who allegedly was declared dead by the defendant hospital’s medical staff but later awoke in the hospital’s morgue but froze to death before she could escape.

The woman’s husband and eight children allege in their medical malpractice/wrongful death/mutilation lawsuit against the hospital and one of its doctors that the woman was taken by ambulance to the defendant hospital on July 26, 2010 suffering from cardiac arrest, acute myocardial infarction, and hypertension. She was pronounced dead by the hospital staff shortly after her arrival. When the mortuary workers came to pick up the woman’s body, they found it lying face down in the hospital morgue.

Back at the mortuary, the mortuary workers discovered that the woman’s nose was broken and her face had lacerations and contusions that were not present when she arrived at the hospital or at the time her family observed her body after she was declared dead. The mortuary workers advised the family of the injuries to the woman’s body.

The plaintiffs alleged in their lawsuit against the hospital and one of its doctors that they prematurely declared the woman to be dead, after which she was placed in a compartment in the defendant hospital’s morgue while still alive that resulted in disfiguring injuries to her face when she tried to escape, and that she ultimately froze to death.

The plaintiffs’ expert rendered his opinion on December 8, 2011 that the woman “had been prematurely declared dead” by the defendant doctor and the defendant hospital’s staff, that she was “frozen alive” in the hospital’s freezer, that she “eventually woke up” due to the extreme cold, and that she “damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb.” The plaintiffs allege that they could not have discovered these alleged facts earlier by the exercise of reasonable diligence and that they only became aware of the alleged facts when they received their expert’s report on December 8, 2011.

The defendants moved to dismiss the claims against them, alleging that the claims were barred because plaintiffs were aware of the disfiguring injuries to the woman’s face on or about July 26, 2010 (the date she was pronounced dead), and that such knowledge placed them on notice of potential wrongdoing by the defendants, yet they failed to file their lawsuit within one year from when they discovered the potential wrongdoing (the present lawsuit was filed on May 3, 2012).

Section 340.5 of the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA) provides in relevant part that “[i]n an action for injury or death against a health care provider based upon such person’s alleged professional negligence, the time for the commencement of action shall be three years after 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.”

The trial court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit without leave to amend. The plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s dismissal.

The Appeals Court stated, “we conclude that it cannot be said as a matter of law that the one-year period began running on or about July 26, 2010, the date of the decedent’s death. First, the injury that plaintiffs reasonably suspected at that time was not the same injury underlying the medical negligence and wrongful death claims. Second, the facts alleged in the complaint do not permit the conclusion, as a matter of law, that a reasonable investigation of all potential causes of the injury plaintiffs suspected at the time of the decedent’s death would have uncovered the factual basis for the negligence and wrongful death claims before December 8, 2011, the date plaintiffs’ expert first rendered his opinion. Therefore, the trial court erred in sustaining the Hospital’s demurrer to these two causes of action.”

The Appeals Courts explained, “it is the suspicion of the factual basis of wrongdoing that commences the limitation period under the discovery rule. Obviously, the factual basis of the wrongdoing that underlies the medical negligence and wrongful death claims (prematurely declaring the decedent dead and placing her in the morgue while alive) is completely different from the factual basis of the wrongdoing plaintiffs suspected as of July 26, 2010 (mishandling the decedent’s remains, causing disfiguring injuries after death). The difference is not in the theories of liability, but in the essential suspected facts. In short, suspected wrongdoing in handling the decedent’s remains after death is not the same as suspected wrongdoing in causing her death. Thus, the ultimate question is whether it can be said, as a matter of law, that through a reasonable investigation of all the potential causes of the injury suspected on or about July 26, 2010, plaintiffs would have discovered within one year the factual basis for the medical negligence and wrongful death causes of action. Nothing in the complaint compels that conclusion as a matter of law … Based on the facts in the complaint, read as a whole, plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the Hospital morgue and when the disfiguring injuries occurred, and thus had no reason to suspect or investigate potential wrongdoing by the Hospital or Dr. Plosay in prematurely declaring the decedent dead … here plaintiffs had no reasonable suspicion of the wrongdoing later disclosed by their expert in the mutilation action … the injury that plaintiffs reasonably suspected had occurred on or about July 26, 2010 (the mishandling of the decedent’s remains after death, causing disfiguring injuries and resultant emotional distress to plaintiffs) was not the same injury for which plaintiffs were suing in the medical negligence and wrongful death causes of action (the Hospital’s and Dr. Plosay’s prematurely declaring the decedent dead and having her placed in a refrigerated compartment in the morgue while still alive where she froze to death, resulting in distinct harm to the decedent and to plaintiffs).”

The Appeals Court concluded, “Therefore, we cannot say as a matter of law that the one-year limitation period was triggered on or about July 26, 2010, and that it commenced any earlier than December 8, 2011, the date plaintiffs’ expert … offered his opinion. Thus, the filing of this action on May 3, 2012 was within the one-year limitation period of section 340.5. It follows that the trial court erred in sustaining the demurrer to the medical negligence and wrongful death causes of action, and we reverse the dismissal of those claims as to the Hospital and Dr. Plosay.”

However, the Appeals Court held that the trial court properly sustained the Hospital’s demurrer to the mutilation claim without leave to amend because “there can be no doubt that plaintiffs were on notice of facts starting the running of the one-year limitation period of section 340.5 by the time they filed the mutilation action against the Hospital on January 31, 2011.”

Source Guadalupe Arroyo et al. v. John J. Plosay III et al., B245659 (Los Angeles County Superior Court No. BC484024)

If you or a family member were injured due to medical negligence in California or in another U.S. state, you should promptly contact a local California medical malpractice attorney or a medical malpractice attorney in your state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.

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This entry was posted on Monday, April 7th, 2014 at 9:47 am. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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