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Circumstances Surrounding Fall in Emergency Room Dictated Proper Statute of Limitations for Claim

November 23, 2021

An emergency room patient was subject to the one year statute of limitations when she claimed she fell on the way back from the restroom due to medical personnel refusing to assist her. Although she asserted that her claim was not time-barred by the one year statute of limitations because she sued on the basis of general negligence and premises liability, the court disagreed and found that the true nature of her claim presented a professional negligence cause of action.

Facts

Distraught about the loss of a pet, Mitchell swallowed sixty Naproxen tablets and landed in the emergency room with extreme stomach cramps and pain. Despite this, her examining physician found that she was alert, oriented and showed no signs of acute distress. The doctor also found that she continued to experience nausea, abdominal pain and had a resting tremor. The physician specifically noted that Mitchell did not present any motor or sensory deficiencies. His impression was that she had suffered an acute kidney injury from the ingestion of the pills.

The nurse assigned to Mitchell noted on her chart that she was calm, cooperative and not in pain. He inserted an IV catheter in her left arm. About two hours later, Mitchell needed to use the restroom. The nurse instructed her to go ahead and based upon her symptoms did not conclude that she needed assistance from medical personnel to do so. Mitchell’s husband helped her to the bathroom, but on the way back she fell, injuring her nose, forehead and knee. Thirty minutes after her fall she was seen by an internist to whom she reported that her legs “just gave out.” After X-rays and several CT scans, it was determined that she had suffered no serious injury as a result of her fall. She was offered crutches and referred to physical therapy for the knee injury.

The appellant sued claiming general negligence and premises liability alleging that because the hospital staff did not accompany her to the restroom, she fell and sustained injuries. The hospital moved for summary judgment stating that her claim sounded in professional negligence and was therefore time barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The trial court agreed with the hospital and granted their motion. Mitchell appealed the decision.

Is a patient’s complaint time-barred by the statute of limitations when the nature of their cause of action presents as professional negligence, but the causes of action alleged are general negligence and premises liability?

In California, a personal injury claim generally must be filed within two years of the date on which the act or omission occurred. (§ 335.1.) When the cause of action is for “injury or death against a health care provider based upon such person’s alleged professional negligence, the time for the commencement of action shall be three years after the date of injury, or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury, whichever occurs first.” (§ 340.5.) In this case, the plaintiff discovered her injuries immediately after the alleged negligent act occurred, so her case was subject to a one year statute of limitations.

The statute provides that professional negligence includes, “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services, which act or omission is the proximate cause of a personal injury or wrongful death, provided that such services are within the scope of services for which the provider is licensed and which are not within any restriction imposed by the licensing agency or licensed hospital.” (Code Civil Procedure § 340.5, subd. (2); see also, Aldana v. Stillwagon (2016) 2 Cal.App.5th 1, 6-7.)

In her deposition, Mitchell stated that she felt “sick, jittery and shaky” before walking to the bathroom and that her legs gave out. Both she and her husband stated under oath that there were no issues with the floor surface or the lighting of the emergency room that may have contributed to her fall. The hospital’s expert on nursing provided the opinion that the medical personnel involved in this case, “complied with the standard of care in all aspects with this patient’s treatment in the ER.” Mitchell provided no contradictory expert testimony.

In Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (2016) 63 Cal.4th 75 (Flores) the court concluded that section 340.5 draws a distinction “between the professional obligations of hospitals in the rendering of medical care to their patients and the obligations hospitals have, simply by virtue of operating facilities open to the public, to maintain their premises in a manner that preserves the well-being and safety of all users.” Section 340.5 provides the applicable statute of limitations where the complaint alleges “injury suffered as a result of negligence in rendering the professional services that hospitals and others provide by virtue of being health care professionals: that is, the provision of medical care to patients.” (Flores, supra, at p. 88.)

The court in the current case goes on to note that Section 340.5 does not only apply to tasks that require advanced medical training, but also covers any act that occurs while rendering medical care, even mundane tasks which may not require any special training. It applies to all tasks completed by medical professionals in the course of their work in providing medical care to their patients.

Therefore, Mitchell’s claim that she fell due to the deficient care of the nursing staff at the hospital squarely falls into the realm of professional negligence rather than general negligence or premises liability. Plaintiffs’ admissions at their depositions that there was no problem with the floors being slippery, wet, or otherwise dangerous; and that the lighting and overall condition of the emergency room did not pose a hazard. This evidence would negate the possibility of premises liability. In addition, the expert for the hospital opined that the nurse followed the appropriate standard of care in this situation and did not act negligently. Based on this evidence, and no contrary expert testimony to contradict it, the court also failed to find that any degree of general negligence was present in this case.

Mitchell’s claim clearly presents as a professional negligence claim rather than a general negligence or premises liability case. As such, the claim must have been filed within one year of the injury. The trial court noted that the nursing staff’s decision that Mitchell did not need assistance in reaching the bathroom was based on medical knowledge and assessment of the facts they had at the time of the incident. Their decision to allow her to walk to the restroom alone was “integrally related to her medical care and treatment.”

As the facts show, this action was filed after that deadline and therefore is time-barred by the statute of limitations in section 340.5. The nursing staff’s decision that she could independently walk to the bathroom was based on medical knowledge and practice and was not due to a problem with the premises or any other type of general negligence. Thus, the decision of the trial court granting summary judgment to the hospital in this case stands.

 

 

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