The Supreme Court of Missouri (“Missouri Supreme Court”) issued a decision on August 18, 2015 in five consolidated wrongful death cases, all involving the deaths of family members who were patients at the defendant hospital in 2002. The Missouri Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs’ claims are time-barred because the three-year statute of limitation had passed when the lawsuits were filed, and section 537.100 does not provide for delayed accrual or an exception for fraudulent concealment, “despite the harsh result.”
The Plaintiffs’ Wrongful Death Allegations
The plaintiffs alleged that a former employee of the defendant hospital, who was a respiratory specialist, was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones by intentionally administering a lethal dose of succinylcholine, insulin, and/or other medication that caused their deaths. The respiratory specialist is alleged to have caused at least nine suspicious deaths and 18 suspicious codes, often involving cardiac arrest or the inability to breathe.
The plaintiffs contended that the defendant hospital was aware of the respiratory specialist’s actions and acted affirmatively to conceal the suspicious nature of the deaths by: (1) threatening and coercing its employees to conceal information concerning the respiratory specialist’s actions; (2) failing to request autopsies so as to conceal the causes of death when there were several suspicious deaths; (3) informing or instructing its employees to notify patients’ families that the causes of death were “natural” rather than due to the respiratory specialist’s actions; (4) disbanding committees put into place to evaluate codes and determine preventative measures; (5) failing to inform appropriate individuals and medical committees that had authority to act about the respiratory specialist’s behavior so that future harm by the respiratory specialist could be prevented; (6) failing to investigate and/or monitor the respiratory specialist when requested to do so by law enforcement; (7) removing patients’ medical records so they were inaccessible to the patients’ physicians; (8) discarding or failing to preserve crucial material evidence contained in the respiratory specialist’s locker regarding her misconduct; and, (9) impeding law enforcement’s investigation of the respiratory specialist.
The suspicious codes and deaths apparently ceased once the respiratory specialist was fired. The plaintiffs alleged that they were not notified of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their family members until shortly before their wrongful death lawsuits were filed, which seek damages under Missouri’s wrongful death statute, section 537.080.
The defendant hospital filed motions for judgments on the pleadings, arguing that the claims were time-barred by the three-year wrongful death statute of limitation contained in section 537.100 (“[e]very action instituted under section 537.080 shall be commenced within three years after the cause of action shall accrue”). The trial courts granted the defendant hospital’s motions, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Missouri Supreme Court noted that there are only two exceptions to Section 537.100: a tolling provision for defendants who abscond from the state to avoid personal service and a one-year savings provision if the plaintiff files a voluntary non-suit or the plaintiff’s judgment is reversed and remanded on appeal (by contrast, Missouri’s general statutes of limitation, Section 516.280, provides an exception for fraudulent concealment).
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that the general statutes of limitation and exceptions are not applicable to causes of action that contain their own special statutes of limitation. Since Section 537.100 is a special statute of limitation for wrongful death, the fraudulent concealment tolling exception in section 516.280 is not applicable to the consolidated cases.
The Missouri Supreme Court stated that in order to determine whether a statute of limitation bars recovery, it is necessary to establish when the cause of action accrued: a cause of action accrues, and the limitation period begins to run, when the right to sue arises, and a wrongful death claim accrues at death. The Missouri Supreme Court held that the language of section 537.100 is unambiguous, and its precedent is clear: the plaintiffs’ claims accrued at the decedents’ deaths, and section 537.100 does not provide for delayed accrual under these circumstances. The Missouri Supreme Court therefore affirmed the judgments of the trial courts.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion argued that the doctrine of equitable estoppel should foreclose the hospital from relying on the wrongful death statute of limitation as an affirmative defense due to the fraudulent concealment of its wrongdoing.
If you may be the victim of medical malpractice in Missouri, you should promptly find a Missouri malpractice lawyer who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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