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Woodruff v. Walker

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

May 26, 2017

JOSHLIN RENEE WOODRUFF BY AND THROUGH DOROTHY COCKRELL, ET AL.
v.
ARMIE WALKER M.D., ET AL.

          Session February 15, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Madison County No. C-13-237, C-15-277 Kyle Atkins, Judge

         The plaintiffs, a mother and her child, filed this health care liability action in September 2015. The complaint alleged that both plaintiffs suffered permanent injuries resulting from the defendant health care providers' negligent care during the child's birth in June 2012. The defendants moved to dismiss the mother's claims based on expiration of the one-year statute of limitations in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-116(a)(1) and to dismiss the claims of both plaintiffs based on expiration of the three-year statute of repose in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-116(a)(3). With regard to the statute of limitations, the plaintiffs argued that the mother's claims were timely filed because the discovery rule delayed the accrual of her claims until March 2015 and because she had been "adjudicated incompetent" within the meaning of Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 such that the limitations period was tolled as to her claims. With regard to the statute of repose, the plaintiffs argued that their claims were timely filed because they were entitled to rely on Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), which extends the three-year statute of repose by 120 days when sufficient pre-suit notice is given. Following a hearing, the trial court concluded that neither the discovery rule nor Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 applied to the mother's claims and that her claims were therefore filed after expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. Additionally, the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient pre-suit notice because the medical authorizations included in their pre-suit notice did not permit the defendants to obtain their complete medical records. Specifically, the trial court found the authorizations insufficient because they did not permit the defendants to obtain relevant medical records from prenatal treatment that the mother received prior to the date of the delivery. The trial court therefore concluded that the plaintiffs were not entitled to rely on the 120-day extended filing period and their claims were filed after expiration of the three-year statute of repose. The trial court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims, and the plaintiffs appealed. Having reviewed the record submitted on appeal, we hold that the trial court properly dismissed the mother's claims based on expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. We further hold, however, that the trial court erred in dismissing the child's claims based on expiration of the three-year statute of repose. Records from prenatal treatment that the mother received prior to the date of the delivery were the mother's medical records, and the child could not have unilaterally authorized their release. As such, his failure to do so did not render the medical authorizations provided with his pre-suit notice insufficient. The defendants have not asserted any other deficiencies in the child's pre-suit notice. Because the child provided sufficient pre-suit notice, he was entitled to rely on Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), which extended the filing period by 120 days. The child's claims were therefore timely filed prior to expiration of the extended statute of repose in October 2015. The judgment of the trial court is affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part, and Remanded

          Joe Bednarz, Sr. and Joe Bednarz, Jr., Hendersonville, Tennessee, for the appellants, Beverly Woodruff and Dorothy Cockrell.

          Marty R. Phillips and Craig P. Sanders, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellee, Armie Walker.

          Darrel E. Baker, Jr., Deborah Whitt, and M. Jason Martin, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, Timothy Hutchinson, Michael Martindale, and Professional Anesthesia Associates, P.C.

          Jennifer S. Harrison, James E. Looper, Jr., and Lauren Dunavin Callins, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Elliott Clifton Roberts, Jr.

          Dixie W. Cooper and Kaycee L. Weeter, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Nathan John Hoeldtke and Mid-South Perinatal Associates, P.C.

          Patrick W. Rogers, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellees, West Tennessee OB-GYN Services aka West Tennessee OB-GYN Clinic, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District, West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc., Anna McIntyre, Kara Carter, Lisa L. Johnson, Jessica Perry, and Dena Etheridge.

          Arnold B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Kenny Armstrong, J., joined.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE.

         Background and Procedural History

         Joshlin Renee Woodruff ("Mother") was approximately 17 weeks pregnant when she was first evaluated by OB-GYN specialist Dr. Armie Walker on January 24, 2012. During the visit, Mother disclosed to Dr. Walker that she suffered from a neuromuscular condition known as myasthenia gravis. Because of that condition and gestational hypertension, Dr. Walker referred Mother to a maternal fetal specialist-Dr. Nathan John Hoeldtke of Mid-South Perinatal Associates, P.C. Dr. Hoeldtke met with and evaluated Mother on January 31, 2012, March 13, 2012, April 12, 2012, May 16, 2012, and June 4, 2012. Mother also continued to receive treatment from Dr. Walker and his partner, Dr. Elliot Clifton Roberts, throughout her pregnancy.

         On May 31, 2012, at approximately 36 weeks gestation, Mother was admitted to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital with exacerbated symptoms of myasthenia gravis that included extreme muscle weakness and shortness of breath. Dr. Hoeldtke evaluated Mother at the hospital and made recommendations for her labor and delivery. Dr. Hoeldtke's recommendations included, among other things, consultation with an anesthesia service to develop anesthesia plans in case it became necessary to deliver the child by cesarean section. Mother's condition improved with medication and treatment, and she was discharged from the hospital on June 6, 2012.[1]

         Mother went into labor in the early morning hours of June 21, 2012. She was admitted to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital at 3:42 a.m. where she was evaluated initially by Dr. Roberts. Dr. Roberts managed Mother's care until 8:00 a.m., at which time she came under the care of Dr. Walker for the remainder of her labor and delivery.

         Mother's labor progressed slowly throughout the day on June 21, 2012. At 6:10 a.m., Dr. Michael Martindale was called to give Mother an epidural anesthesia. Initially, Dr. Martindale declined to administer the anesthetic in light of Mother's myasthenia gravis condition. Later that morning, however, Dr. Timothy Hutchinson began to administer small doses of epidural anesthetic to help control Mother's pain. At 3:00 p.m., Dr. Walker ordered that Mother be given a small dose of the labor-inducing drug Pitocin. At 3:45 p.m., Mother called for a nurse and reported that she did not like the way the epidural made her feel. The nurse observed that one of Mother's eyes was swollen and drooped, and Dr. Hutchinson was called to turn off the epidural. At 4:52 p.m., Dr. Hoeldtke arrived in Mother's hospital room. Dr. Walker increased Mother's dosage of Pitocin at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., but it failed to augment her labor by any reasonable degree.

         As the day wore on, Mother began to exhibit symptoms of exacerbated myasthenia gravis that made it unsafe to continue the labor and deliver the child vaginally. Pulse oximeter readings indicated low levels of oxygen in Mother's blood. Additionally, Mother reported difficulty breathing on several occasions. At 8:05 p.m., Dr. Martindale entered the room to give Mother an epidural anesthetic. Although Mother expressed difficulty breathing, Dr. Walker insisted on doing a vaginal exam at 8:16 p.m. During the exam, Mother stopped breathing and went into respiratory and cardiac arrest. Mother was rushed to an operating room where an emergency caesarian section was performed while doctors worked to revive her. Braylon Woodruff ("Child") was delivered by cesarean section at approximately 8:30 p.m.

         Mother and Child both suffered serious permanent injuries and brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen during the delivery. On June 28, 2012, the Madison County Juvenile Court entered an order granting temporary legal custody of Child to his maternal grandmother, Beverly Woodruff. On November 29, 2012, the Madison County General Sessions Court entered an order appointing Mother's aunt, Dorothy Cockrell, as Mother's conservator.

         On April 17, 2015, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a), counsel for Mother and Child (together, "Plaintiffs") sent letters to the following health care providers notifying them of potential health care liability claims against them: Armie Walker, M.D., Elliott Clifton Roberts, Jr., M.D., West Tennessee OB-GYN Services aka West Tennessee OB-GYN Clinic, Nathan John Hoeldtke, M.D., Mid-South Perinatal Associates, P.C., Timothy Hutchinson, M.D., Michael Martindale, M.D., Professional Anesthesia Associates, P.C., Jackson Madison County General Hospital, West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc., Anna McIntyre, R.N., Kara Carter, R.N., Lisa L. Johnson, R.N., Jessica Perry, R.N., and Dena Etheridge, R.N. (together, "Defendants"). The pre-suit notice letters were accompanied by medical authorizations permitting Defendants to obtain Plaintiffs' medical records from each other. Notably, the authorizations only permitted the release of medical records for three dates: January 24, 2012; June 21, 2012; and July 16, 2012.

         On September 29, 2015, Plaintiffs filed a health care liability complaint against Defendants.[2] The complaint alleged that Defendants caused Plaintiffs to suffer permanent injuries by negligently failing to recognize and take appropriate action in response to Mother's deteriorating condition during her labor on June 21, 2012. The complaint alleged that Plaintiffs had complied with the pre-suit notice requirements of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a). Along with the complaint, Plaintiffs filed a certificate of good faith pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-122.[3]

         In response to the complaint, Defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02(6).[4] Defendants asserted that the claims advanced by Mother in the complaint were barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to health care liability actions. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116(a). They argued that, although Mother had a court-appointed conservator, the limitations period was not tolled by Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 because Mother had not been adjudicated incompetent at the time her claims accrued. While Defendants acknowledged that the statute of limitations was tolled as to Child's claims because of his minority, they further asserted that all of Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the three-year statute of repose applicable to health care liability actions. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116(a)(3). They argued that Plaintiffs could not rely on Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) to extend the filing period by 120 days because they did not provide sufficient pre-suit notice of their claims. Specifically, they argued that the medical authorizations provided with Plaintiffs' pre-suit notice did not afford them access to relevant medical records for prenatal treatment that Mother received prior to the date of the delivery.

         In June 2016, Plaintiffs filed a motion to amend their complaint to add allegations aimed at avoiding dismissal of Mother's claims based on expiration of the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs' proposed amended complaint alleged that they did not discover their claims until Dr. Walker revealed previously unknown factual information during a deposition in March 2015. Plaintiffs therefore asserted that the one-year statute of limitations began to run in March 2015 and their claims were timely filed.

         Plaintiffs also filed a separate response opposing Defendants' motions to dismiss. In the response, Plaintiffs argued that Mother's claims were not barred by the one-year statute of limitations because Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 tolled the limitations period and/or because they were not discovered until March 2015. Additionally, Plaintiffs argued that, by permitting the release of their medical records for June 21, 2012, their medical authorizations afforded Defendants access to all relevant medical records because all of the wrongful conduct alleged in their complaint occurred on that date. Plaintiffs therefore asserted that they were entitled to the 120-day extended filing period provided by Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) and their claims were not barred by the three-year statute of repose.

         Following a hearing, the trial court entered five separate orders granting Defendants' motions to dismiss. As an initial matter, the court held that Mother's claims were barred by the one-year statute of limitations. The court explained that the discovery rule did not delay the limitations period because Plaintiffs were alerted of the need to investigate their injuries on June 21, 2012. The court further explained that Tennessee Code Annotated section 28-1-106 did not toll the limitations period as to Mother's claims because she was not adjudicated incompetent before her claims accrued. The court therefore concluded that the statute of limitations period expired on June 21, 2013 and Mother's claims, asserted in the September 29, 2015 complaint, were not timely filed. Additionally, the court held that all of Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the three-year statute of repose. The court explained that Plaintiffs could not rely on the 120-day extended filing period because their pre-suit notice did not substantially comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(2)(E). Specifically, the court found that the medical authorizations provided with the pre-suit notice did not permit Defendants to obtain all of Plaintiffs' relevant medical records because they did not permit the release of records for Mother's pregnancy (including her ...


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