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Gail Runions v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Jackson

June 6, 2018

TIFFINNE WENDALYN GAIL RUNIONS ET AL.
v.
JACKSON-MADISON COUNTY GENERAL HOSPITAL DISTRICT ET AL.

          Session [1] November 30, 2017

          Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Madison County No. C-14-46 Donald H. Allen, Judge

         The Tennessee Health Care Liability Act, Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(1) (2012 & Supp. 2017), requires a person who asserts a potential health care liability claim to give written pre-suit notice of the claim to each health care provider that will be named a defendant at least sixty days before the complaint is filed. The question we address is whether the trial court erred by allowing the plaintiff to amend her complaint, after the expiration of the statute of limitations, to substitute as a defendant a health care provider to which the plaintiff had not sent pre-suit notice. The health care provider the plaintiff sought to substitute had knowledge of the claim based on pre-suit notice the plaintiff had mistakenly sent to another potential defendant. We hold that the plaintiff did not comply with the mandatory pre-suit notice provision of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(1) because she did not give written pre-suit notice of the potential claim to the health care provider she later sought to substitute as a defendant after the expiration of the statute of limitations. Although the health care provider learned about the claim based on the pre-suit notice the plaintiff sent to another potential defendant, this form of notification did not comply with the notice requirement of section 29-26-121(a)(1). Because the plaintiff did not comply with Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a)(1), the 120-day filing extension under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c) is not applicable. Under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03, the filing date of the proposed amended complaint may relate back to the filing date of the original complaint. The plaintiff, however, filed the original complaint after the expiration of the statute of limitations. As a result, the plaintiff's motion to substitute the health care provider is futile because the amended suit would be subject to dismissal based on the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. The trial court erred by allowing the plaintiff to amend her complaint. We reverse the trial court and the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Trial Court and the Court of Appeals Reversed; Case Remanded to the Trial Court

          Patrick W. Rogers, Jackson, Tennessee, for the appellants, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District; West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc.; and West Tennessee Healthcare Network.

          Mark N. Geller, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Tiffinne Wendalyn Gail Runions.

          Sharon G. Lee, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Cornelia A. Clark, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          SHARON G. LEE, JUSTICE

         I.

         On November 9, 2012, Tiffinne Wendalyn Gail Runions gave birth to a baby at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital at 620 Skyline Drive in Jackson, Tennessee. Ms. Runions' baby died five days later.

         On October 18, 2013, counsel for Ms. Runions sent pre-suit notice letters, asserting a health care liability claim, to seven entities, including Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.; West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.; and West Tennessee Healthcare Network d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.[2]Ms. Runions sent the notice letters to these entities by certified mail in care of Currie Higgs, their registered agent, whose address was also 620 Skyline Drive, Jackson, Tennessee. Ms. Higgs also served as general counsel for Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District ("the District"). The letters advised that, under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(a), Ms. Runions was asserting a health care liability claim against them. The letters also included a list of the health care providers to which Ms. Runions had sent notice and a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization, [3] as required by the statute.

         On October 25, 2013, Laura Zamata, Director of Risk Management for the District, responded to Ms. Runions' notice of claim by letter stating:

The District is a governmental entity and has elected to be self-insured, therefore, there is no insurance carrier.
Please be advised that as the Director of Risk Management, I am your designated contact for the above referenced claim and all correspondence and telephone inquiries should be directed to me unless you are notified otherwise.

         Ms. Zamata advised that her mailing address was "JMCGH, 620 Skyline Drive, Jackson, TN 38301." Ms. Zamata's letter was on West Tennessee Healthcare letterhead, which listed at the bottom of the page thirty-five health care-related entities, including Bolivar General Hospital, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, West Tennessee Healthcare Foundation, West Tennessee OB/GYN Services, and West Tennessee Women's Center.

         On March 6, 2014, after the expiration of the statute of limitations and within the 120-day filing extension under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-26-121(c), [4] Ms. Runions filed a health care liability complaint in the Madison County Circuit Court against Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.; West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.; and West Tennessee Healthcare Network d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc. The complaint alleged that the defendants' negligent conduct while Ms. Runions and her baby were patients at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital caused the baby's death.

         The defendants answered, asserting, in part, that they were not proper parties because they provided no medical care to Ms. Runions or her baby at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. Instead, the defendants contended that the District, which was not sued, owned and operated the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. The defendants also asserted a statute of limitations defense.

         The defendants moved for summary judgment, [5] arguing that they had provided no medical care to Ms. Runions or her baby. Relying on the affidavit of Ms. Higgs, the defendants further explained the status and relationship of the District and the defendants. According to the defendants, the District, a governmental entity, owns and operates Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. West Tennessee Healthcare Network, a governmental entity, is a managed care network that does not do business as Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc.; provided no medical services to Ms. Runions or her baby; and is a subsidiary of the District with the District being its sole member. West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. is a non-profit organization with no employees or licenses to operate health care facilities. Instead, West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. is a real estate holding company for the District that provided no medical services to Ms. Runions or her baby and limits its activities to the ownership and leasing of property. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc. is not an active legal entity and provided no medical treatment to Ms. Runions or her baby. It was organized in 1992 as a non-profit corporation with the District as its sole member. In 1995, Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc. amended its Charter to change its name to Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. and currently operates the Bolivar General Hospital in Hardeman County.

         Ms. Runions responded to the motion, conceding that she had mistakenly sued Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. because it may not have provided health care services to her and her baby. She argued, however, that it was clear from the face of the complaint that she had intended to sue Jackson-Madison County General Hospital at 620 Skyline Drive, Jackson, Tennessee-whatever its name may be. Ms. Runions explained that a search for Jackson-Madison County General Hospital through the Tennessee Secretary of State's information service showed a listing for Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. with the mailing address of 620 Skyline Drive, Jackson, Tennessee, and that Ms. Higgs was Bolivar General Hospital, Inc.'s registered agent at the same Skyline Drive address. The Secretary of State's information service also listed Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc. as the "old" name of the facility now known as Bolivar General Hospital, Inc.

         Ms. Runions asserted that on October 21, 2013, the District received actual notice of the claim through notice sent to its place of business at 620 Skyline Drive, Jackson, Tennessee, within the one-year statute of limitations period. According to Ms. Runions, the District knew or should have known that, but for the mistake in identity of the proper party, she would have sued the District. As for West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc. and West Tennessee Healthcare Network, Ms. Runions disputed whether these entities provided medical care. She contended that the trial court should allow her to proceed with discovery about their activities relating to the medical care she and her baby received at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital. Ms. Runions also argued that the statute of limitations did not bar her action.

         Ms. Runions moved to amend her complaint to substitute the District for Bolivar General Hospital, Inc. d/b/a Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Inc. with the amendment to relate back to the filing of the original complaint under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 15.03.

         The defendants responded that Ms. Runions gave pre-suit notice to Bolivar General Hospital, Inc.; West Tennessee Healthcare, Inc.; and West Tennessee Healthcare Network, but not to the District. Relying on Shockley v. Mental Health Coop., Inc., 429 S.W.3d 582 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013), the defendants argued that Ms. Runions could not cure her failure to comply with the pre-suit notice requirement under Tennessee Code ...


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