Case Updates

By Mia Frieder

Tenet HealthSystem GB, Inc. v. Thomas, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 461 (June 29, 2018)
Supreme Court of Georgia held that a new claim of imputed simple negligence against a hospital in a second amended complaint related back to the original complaint for medical malpractice pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c).

The lawsuit arose when plaintiff Lorraine Thomas was involved in a motor vehicle accident on May 10, 2012. Emergency medical personnel secured her neck with a cervical collar (“C-collar”), placed her on a backboard and transported her to the emergency room of Tenet HealthSystem GB, Inc., d/b/a Atlanta Medical Center (hereinafter “the hospital”). Thomas was triaged by hospital staff and examined by hospital nurses. A doctor ordered a cervical CT scan, and the scan was interpreted by a second doctor who reported no acute findings. Thomas was discharged, and the C-collar was removed by hospital personnel. Thomas was placed in a wheelchair and escorted out of the hospital. While waiting, she became unresponsive and was re-admitted to the hospital. A subsequent cervical spine MRI revealed that

Thomas had a cervical spine fracture that became dislocated, resulting in compression of the spinal cord, neurological damage and quadriplegia.

The original complaint, filed May 6, 2014, asserted claims of professional negligence against the doctors who examined Thomas and read the CT scan, and a claim against the hospital of imputed liability for the negligent acts and omissions of those two doctors pursuant to the doctrines of respondeat superior, joint venture, and ostensible and apparent agency. In August 2015, Thomas filed a second amended complaint that contained a claim against the hospital of imputed liability pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior or agency for the simple negligence of a nursing employee who removed Thomas’s cervical spine collar in violation of a hospital policy that only a physician could remove a patient’s cervical spine collar. The trial court dismissed that count, finding that the original complaint was “devoid of allegations of liability on the part of the hospital nursing staff,” that the new imputed liability claim did not arise from “the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth…in the original pleading,” and therefore, did not relate back pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 9-11-15 (c). On interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the new imputed liability claim against the hospital for a nurse’s removal of the collar arose out of the same conduct, transaction, or occurrence set forth in the original complaint.1

The Supreme Court of Georgia granted cert and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, relying upon the United States Supreme Court reasoning that
“ ‘where there was but one episode-in-suit,’ and no ‘separate episodes’ at a ‘different time and place,’ an ‘amendment related back, and therefore avoided a statute of limitations bar, even though the amendment invoked a legal theory not suggested by the original complaint and relied on facts not originally asserted.’”2 Key to the Georgia Supreme Court’s holding was that the facts alleged in the new imputed liability claim occurred at, or very near to, the same time as certain facts in the original complaint, occurred at the exact same location, involved the same general subject matter, i.e., the negligent treatment of Thomas’s dangerously unstable spine, and the allegations were part of the same events that led up to the same ultimate injury for which Thomas sought damages. The fact that the count invoked a new legal theory based on imputed simple negligence and an allegation that a hospital nurse proximately caused or contributed to Thomas’s injury, both of which were not in the original complaint, did not prevent relation back since “personal injury plaintiffs often cannot pinpoint the precise cause of an injury prior to discovery.”3 The Court held that relation back was similarly not prevented by the fact that the second amended complaint alleged that the hospital was vicariously liable for the conduct of a different individual than the individual on whose conduct the original claim of imputed liability against the hospital was based. In a footnote, the Supreme Court of Georgia also overruled Thomas v. Medical Center of Central Ga., 286 Ga. App. 147 (2007) to the extent it was inconsistent with this specific holding.

Langley v. MP Spring Lake, LLC, 345 Ga. App. 739 (May 1, 2018)
The Court of Appeals upheld a one-year contractual limitation period encompassed by plaintiff’s lease even though personal actions are ordinarily subject to a two-year statute of limitation.

On March 3, 2014, Plaintiff Pamela Langley was a lawful tenant of MP Spring Lake, LLC (“Spring Lake”) when she fell in a common area of the apartment complex. On March 3, 2016, Langley filed suit against Spring Lake for personal injuries based on premises liability, alleging negligence and negligence per se. Spring Lake moved for summary judgment, asserting that Langley’s claims were barred by a contractual limitation period in her lease, which provided for a one-year limitation period for legal actions, and Langley filed her complaint two years after the injury occurred; thus, her claim was time barred.

Specifically, Spring Lake claimed that because Langley’s claims accrued on March 3, 2014 when she fell, she was required by her lease to file suit on or before March 3, 2015. The trial court granted Spring Lake’s motion, and the sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment, concluding that Langley’s lease shortened the time period to bring personal injury actions against the apartment complex from two years to one year.

The provision at issue stated:

“Limitation of Actions. To the extent allowed by law, Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against Management or Owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law.”

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that there was no ambiguity in the relevant contractual provision. “As a result, the one-year contractual limitation period…was applicable to any action, not just those which arose from breaches of the lease. Accordingly, although personal injury claims are ordinarily subject to a two-year statute of limitation, Langley contractually agreed to bring any action against Spring Lake – including, but not limited to, personal injury actions – within one year.”4

The Court of Appeals rejected plaintiff’s argument that the provision should be unenforceable as a matter of law when contractual-limitation-period clauses are enforceable in Georgia, and there is no authority that holds such provisions are inapplicable to personal injury actions. Lastly, “unless prohibited by statute or public policy, all [parties] are free to contract on any terms regarding a subject matter in which they have an interest, and such agreements will be enforced by the courts.”5 Here, the provision was not contrary to public policy, and The Supreme Court of Georgia has held that “parties to a contract have the power to agree among themselves upon a period of time which would amount to a statute of limitations, either greater or less than the period fixed by law. ●

1 Thomas, 340 Ga. App. at 73-34.
2 Tenet HealthSystem GB, Inc. at 10, quoting Mayle v. Felix, 545 U.S. 644, 659 (2005).
3 Id., at 13, quoting Mayle at 660
4 Langley, 345 Ga. App. at 741. (Emphasis in original.)
5 Id. at 743.
6 Id. at 744. (Emphasis in original).

Mia Frieder is a founder of Hilley & Frieder in Atlanta. A graduate of the Emory University School of Law, her practice specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice, workers’ compensation, and wrongful death. She is active in numerous bar associations, including GTLA where she currently serves as Chair of the Verdict Editorial Board.

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