The Court of Appeals of North Carolina (“North Carolina Appellate Court”) held in its January 2, 2018 decision that the trial court erred by determining that an adjudication of incompetency pursuant to Chapter 35A was required for the statute of limitations to be tolled in the present case, and that in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the injured person had been an incompetent adult since his eighteenth birthday until the date his guardian ad litem was appointed.
The North Carolina medical malpractice case was filed against a neurosurgeon who had performed brain surgery on a 15-year-old on March 6, 2011, which surgery resulted in substantial swelling of his brain that caused a severe stroke and resulted in severe, permanent, and debilitating neurological damage.
The North Carolina medical malpractice lawsuit was filed by a guardian ad litem appointed by the court, who alleged that the neurosurgeon negligently failed to assess the nature of the child’s adenoma by failing to order a blood test to determine whether the pituitary adenoma could be treated medically instead of surgically (it was subsequently determined that the brain surgery was unnecessary and inappropriate because the child had a prolactinoma that should have been treated medically rather than surgically).
The guardian ad litem’s North Carolina medical malpractice lawsuit alleged that the injured person was born on January 19, 1996 and was until his eighteenth birthday on January 19, 2014 “a minor and was then, continuously has been and is presently under a disability preventing him from initiating this civil action for medical malpractice and professional negligence by the Defendants in this case.” The guardian ad litem further alleged that the medical malpractice claim was filed within the applicable statute of repose in that the last act giving rise to the cause of action occurred on February 12, 2012, when the defendants’ negligent treatment of the child was discovered.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the North Carolina medical malpractice case was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, stating, in part: “that a judicial determination of the Plaintiff’s competency was never made pursuant to N.C.G.S. Chapter 35A and the Plaintiff failed to demonstrate or otherwise meet its burden of proof with regard to Plaintiff’s competency at the time of the filing of the original Complaint, at the time of the re-filing of the Complaint, and as of the time of the hearing on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment; . . . that the current action, like the initial Complaint, was filed after the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations, that the injured Plaintiff never has been adjudicated incompetent for the purposes of N.C.G.S. Chapter 35A, and that therefore there is no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the statute of limitations is a bar to the injured Plaintiff’s claims.” The plaintiff appealed.
The North Carolina Appellate Court stated that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a) provides, in pertinent part, that a “person entitled to commence an action who is under a disability at the time the cause of action accrued may bring his or her action within the time limited in this Subchapter, after the disability is removed[.]” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a). For the purposes of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a), “a person is under a disability if the person . . . is incompetent as defined in G.S. 35A-1101(7) or (8).” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a)(3).
N.C. Gen. Stat. §35A-1101(7) provides that an “[i]ncompetent adult” means an adult or emancipated minor who lacks sufficient capacity to manage the adult’s own affairs or to make or communicate important decisions concerning the adult’s person, family, or property whether the lack of capacity is due to mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, autism, inebriety, senility, disease, injury, or similar cause or condition. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 35A-1101(7) (2015).
The North Carolina Appellate Court held the language of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(a) to be clear: if a person meets the statutory definition of an “incompetent adult” under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 35A-1101(7), the applicable statute of limitations is tolled until the disability is removed. The General Assembly made no finding that an adjudication of incompetency under Chapter 35A was required in order to toll the statute of limitations. If that had been their intent, they could have easily explicitly stated such.
The North Carolina Appellate Court further held that there is evidence from which a fact finder could determine that the injured person was competent when the statute of limitation expired; however, viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the plaintiff has forecasted sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the injured person was incompetent at the time the statute of limitation expired, tolling the statute.
The North Carolina Appellate Court therefore held that there is a genuine issue of material fact and the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
Source Ragsdale v. Whitley, No. COA17-860.
If you have been injured as a result of medical malpractice in North Carolina or in another U.S. state, you should promptly consult a medical malpractice lawyer in North Carolina or in your state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
Click here to visit our website or call us toll-free in the United States at 800-295-3959 to find medical malpractice attorneys in your state who may assist you.
Turn to us when you don’t know where to turn.