The State of Minnesota Court of Appeals (“Minnesota Appellate Court”) ruled in its April 9, 2018 unpublished opinion that the record on appeal presented a genuine issue of material fact regarding the date the plaintiff’s medical treatment terminated, and therefore the district court erred in summarily dismissing the plaintiff’s Minnesota medical malpractice complaint.
The defendant physician began treating the plaintiff in July 2012 for a painful bunionette deformity on her left forefoot. The defendant recommended an MRI, and referred the plaintiff to another physician for lumbar sympathetic nerve blocks. In August 2012, the defendant discussed with the plaintiff her MRI results and recommended surgery. In October 2012, the defendant also recommended treatment for a bunionette on the plaintiff’s right foot.
The defendant operated on the plaintiff’s left and right feet on October 16, 2012. The plaintiff was discharged the same day but soon experienced extraordinary pain. Between October 16, 2012 and October 25, 2012, the plaintiff called both the defendant and the hospital where the surgery took place numerous times complaining of pain. The defendant prescribed pain relievers for the plaintiff on several occasions.
The defendant examined the plaintiff in his office on October 25, 2012, and instructed her to go to the emergency room. The plaintiff was hospitalized from October 25 until November 2, 2012, during which the defendant primarily managed her care. The plaintiff was discharged from the hospital with instructions to return to the defendant’s care for follow-up.
The plaintiff saw two other physicians on November 11, 2012, both of whom recommended amputation.
On November 12, the plaintiff returned to the defendant, who said that her feet were healing properly and that she could begin walking on both feet. The plaintiff’s subsequent medical treatment eventually led to below-the-knee amputation of her left leg in February 2014 and amputation of her right leg in July 2014.
The plaintiff alleged in her Minnesota medical malpractice complaint that the November 12, 2012 office visit with the defendant physician was the last time she treated with the defendant. After the defendant sought to dismiss the plaintiff’s Minnesota medical malpractice complaint because she failed to commence her medical negligence action within the four-year statute of limitations under Minn. Stat. § 541.076(b) (2016), the plaintiff submitted an affidavit in which she attested that on November 21, 2012, she “participated in a phone call with [the defendant physician’s] office and staff.” The plaintiff further averred in her affidavit that during the November 21, 2012 telephone call, she discussed her “current condition and medications, prognosis, and treatment options.”
The defendant submitted his own affidavit in which he averred he did not speak to the plaintiff on November 21, 2012 or at any other time after November 12th. The defendant further averred that the last time he provided treatment and care for the plaintiff was on November 12, 2012.
On May 22, 2017, the district court issued a written order that granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, reasoning that “[w]hen treatment ended is the critical issue,” and no “credible evidence” established medical service was provided after November 12, 2012, because the “undisputed fact” is that the plaintiff did not talk to the defendant on November 21, 2012 and “[t]here was no care, advice, consultation or treatment” in the November 21 phone call.
Minnesota Appellate Court Opinion
The Minnesota Appellate Court stated that a plaintiff must commence a medical malpractice action within four years “from the date the cause of action accrued.” Minn. Stat. § 541.076(b). Generally, medical malpractice actions in Minnesota accrue when “the physician’s treatment for a particular condition ceases,” which is known as the termination-of-treatment rule. The policy reason behind the termination-of-treatment rule is that the patient must repose reliance upon her physician in the completion of the course of curative treatment, a relationship of trust which inhibits the patient’s ability to discover acts of omission or commission constituting malpractice.
The only exception to the termination of treatment rule is where there is a single act of allegedly negligent conduct, which applies only when the alleged tort consists of (1) a single act; (2) which is complete at a precise time; (3) which no continued course of treatment can either cure or relieve; and (4) where the plaintiff is actually aware of the facts upon which the claim is based. When the single-act exception applies, the statute of limitations begins to run at the time the plaintiff sustains damage from the act.
The Minnesota Appellate Court stated that neither party contends that the plaintiff’s cause of action arose from a single act. As a result, the termination-of-treatment rule applies, and the statute of limitations began to run when the plaintiff’s treatment with the defendant ended.
The Minnesota Appellate Court stated that courts should evaluate three factors to determine when treatment ended: (1) whether there is a relationship between physician and patient with regard to the illness; (2) whether the physician is attending and examining the patient; and (3) whether there is something more to be done.
The Minnesota Appellate Court held that the record in the present case created an issue of material fact whether the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant terminated on November 12, 2012: the record established consistent contacts between the plaintiff and the defendant through several visits, telephone contacts, and hospital care from July through November 2012; there was no evidence that the plaintiff or the defendant viewed the November 12 appointment as the end of the plaintiff’s treatment; and, the record supported the inference that phone calls were a consistent part of the plaintiff’s treatment relationship with the defendant.
The Minnesota Appellate Court held that a reasonable jury could find, based on the months-long relationship and the November 21 phone call, that the plaintiff continued to seek the defendant’s treatment and trust in his care. The Minnesota Appellate Court held: “Taking the record evidence as a whole and viewing it in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff], she raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding each … factor; specifically, conflicting evidence was submitted regarding whether [the plaintiff] was in a patient relationship with [the defendant] after November 12, whether [the defendant] attended to [the plaintiff’s] treatment via telephone on November 21, and whether the parties contemplated additional treatment after the office visit on November 12 or through telephone communications on November 21. This evidence created genuine issues of material fact that were inappropriate for resolution on summary judgment.”
Source Fitzgerald v. Silverman, A17-1224.
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