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Coggins v. Holston Valley Medical Center

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 15, 2015

CARRIE COGGINS ET AL.
v.
HOLSTON VALLEY MEDICAL CENTER

Session Date: January 14, 2015

Appeal from the Law Court for Sullivan County No. C39965(M) John S. McLellan, III, Judge

On August 6, 2011, Carrie Coggins and her husband Joel R. Coggins (Plaintiffs) visited a patient at Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center (Hospital). While there, Mrs. Coggins tripped and fell, sustaining serious injuries. Plaintiffs[1] filed suit and alleged that Mrs. Coggins tripped over a feeding tube that, according to Plaintiffs, had been negligently left near her friend's bed in such a way as to create a dangerous condition. Before they filed suit, Plaintiffs served Hospital with pre-suit notice of their intent to file. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121 (2012). Hospital filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The trial court granted Hospital summary judgment. The court held that (1) Plaintiffs' action was an ordinary negligence action based on premises liability, not a health care liability action; and (2) Plaintiffs could not rely upon (a) Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(c), which extends the applicable statutes of limitations and repose for 120 days when pre-suit notice is properly given, or (b) Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(e), which provides that "[i]n the event that a complaint is filed in good faith reliance on the extension of the statute of limitations or repose granted by this section and it is later determined that the claim is not a health care liability claim, the extension of the statute of limitations and repose granted by this section is still available to the plaintiff." We agree with the trial court's holding that Plaintiffs' claim sounds in ordinary negligence under a premises liability theory. However, because amendments to the malpractice statute made the application of the "ordinary negligence/medical malpractice" dichotomy potentially confusing and unclear at the time, and because both sides of this litigation tried this case on the mistaken, albeit understandable, belief that the definition of a "health care liability action" found in the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 applies to this case, a position that the trial court picked up on and followed, we hold that Plaintiffs filed their complaint in good faith reliance on the extension of the applicable statute of limitations and are therefore entitled to 121(c)'s 120-day extension. Therefore, Plaintiffs' complaint was timely filed. Accordingly, we vacate the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

T. Martin Browder, Jr. and R. Wayne Culbertson, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellants, Carrie Coggins and Joel R. Coggins.

Andrew T. Wampler and Russell W. Adkins, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellee, Wellmont Health System dba Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center.

Charles D. Susano, Jr., C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney and John W. McClarty, JJ., joined.

OPINION

CHARLES D. SUSANO, JR., CHIEF JUDGE

I. Plaintiffs filed their complaint on December 3, 2012, alleging in pertinent part as follows:

Carrie Coggins, and her husband[, ] Joel, were visiting a patient, Berdett Arrowood, on the fifth floor of Holston Valley Medical Center on or about August 6th, 2011, and upon entering the room, Berdett Arrowood motioned to Carrie Coggins indicating that he would like for her to come to the left side of his bed. Carrie Coggins walked around the end of the bed until she reached a location near the head of the bed, and the patient then indicated that he would actually be more comfortable talking with Carrie and her husband if Carrie would go back to the other side of the bed where he could actually look at both as he was talking to them. As she turned to walk back toward the opposite side of the bed, her foot became entangled in a feeding tube which had carelessly and negligently been permitted to drape down upon the floor, causing her to lose her balance. She fell hard onto the concrete floor, shattering and breaking her hip. Carrie's fall was the direct and proximate result of the nursing and maintenance personnel placing the tubing in a manner that caused it to drape onto the floor, creating a hazard and an impediment for anyone walking near the patient[']s bed.
Carrie Coggins avers that the nursing personnel, administrative officers and maintenance and nursing personnel employed by the hospital, and acting as agents and servants of the said hospital departed from an acceptable standard of care in the community or in the similar communities in permitting a hazard to remain in place, that is to say medical tubing draped upon the floor in or around a patient's bed, which they in the exercise of due care would have known presented a hazard of falling to visitors of the patient. She further avers that the carelessness and negligence of the agents and servants of Holston Valley Medical Center in departing from an acceptable standard of care for Kingsport, Tennessee or in the same or similar communities was the direct and proximate cause of her fall and her injuries, and that she would not have suffered the injuries, residual pain, impairment and damages that she has but for the said actions and inactions of the defendant described above.
Plaintiffs aver that the defendants departed from a recognized standard of acceptable professional practice in regard to the maintenance[, ] use, and configuration of medical equipment in and around the facility, and that they acted with less than or failed to act with ordinary or reasonable care in accordance with an acceptable standard of care, and that as a proximate result of their negligent acts or omissions Carrie Coggins suffered injuries which she would not otherwise have had.

(Paragraph numbering in original omitted.) Plaintiffs state in their complaint that they have complied with the pre-suit notice requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121 by delivering the required notice to Hospital on August 6, 2012, more than 60 days before filing suit.[2]

On August 12, 2013, Hospital filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, alleging that Plaintiffs' action was not timely filed within the applicable one-year statute of limitations. Hospital argues that "[p]laintiff alleges personal injury occurring August 6, 2011 under a premises liability theory but failed to file suit until December 3, 2012."[3] Plaintiffs responded that their claim was brought under the Tennessee Health Care Liability Act (THCLA), which provides, at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(c), that

When notice is given to a provider as provided in this section, the applicable statutes of limitations and repose shall be extended for a period of one hundred twenty (120) days from the date of expiration of the statute of limitations and statute of repose applicable to that provider.

Additionally, Plaintiffs argued that if the trial court disagreed that their claim was governed by the THCLA, they were still entitled to the 120-day extension under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(e), which provides, as previously noted, as follows:

In the event that a complaint is filed in good faith reliance on the extension of the statute of limitations or repose granted by this section and it is later determined that the claim is not a health care liability claim, the extension of the statute of limitations and repose granted by this section is still available to the plaintiff.

The trial court granted Hospital summary judgment, finding and holding in pertinent part as follows:

1.The Complaint asserts a claim for premises liability arising from Plaintiff Carrie Coggins' visit to a patient at [Hospital] on August 6, 2011.
2. Based on the allegations of Plaintiffs in the Complaint, Plaintiff Carrie Coggins was not a patient of [Hospital] at the time of the alleged injury.
3. Plaintiffs sent a notice of intent to sue letter under the Health Care Liability Act to [Hospital] on August 6, 2012, asserting a health care liability claim. Plaintiffs did not file a Complaint at that time.
4.Plaintiffs filed a Complaint on December 3, 2012, alleging fault against the Defendant related to a fall sustained by Plaintiff Carrie Coggins.
5. The statute of limitations for personal injury related to a premises liability claim arising from a fall is one year pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-104.
6.The Tennessee Health Care Liability Act applies to health care services provided to a person, and therefore applies only to patients. Because Plaintiff Carrie Coggins was not a patient, the Health Care Liability Act does not apply in this case. Plaintiffs cannot rely on Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-121(e) to extend the statute of limitations to allow time for her to file a premises liability claim.
7.Because Plaintiffs did not file a Complaint within one year from the date of the alleged injury in August 2011, the Court finds that this action is barred by the one year statute ...

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