California Appeals Court Holds Dental Patient’s Claim Barred By Statute of Limitations

A patient sued a dentist for dental malpractice, alleging that his negligence in performing a dental implant procedure permanently damaged a nerve in her jaw. He moved for summary judgment based on the one-year limitations period that Code of Civil Procedure section 340.5 establishes for all professional negligence claims against health care providers. The trial court granted the motion and entered judgment against the patient. The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed.Section 340.5’s one-year limitations period starts when the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered both her injury and that someone’s wrongdoing likely caused it. The patient testified she felt an electric shock as the dentist drilled the socket for her implant, and she immediately thought he had done something wrong. On the next day, she returned to his office to complain about the pain.

After examining her and taking an x-ray, the dentist apologized to the patient, admitting the implant he used was too large, and it had touched or broken a nerve. She later saw two other oral surgeons, who confirmed that the implant had damaged a nerve and that her condition likely was permanent because the nerve had not regenerated within the first six months. She saw the latter of these two surgeons approximately 21 months before filing her lawsuit.

Before the lower court and on appeal, the dentist contended section 340.5’s one-year limitations period barred the patient’s claim because not only would a reasonable person have suspected his wrongdoing caused her injury more than one year before she filed suit, but she subjectively suspected he negligently performed the surgery more than one year before filing this lawsuit.

The appeals court agreed, explaining the evidence presented below satisfied the dentist’s initial burden on summary judgment because it showed not only that the patient actually suspected but also that a reasonable person would have suspected that his negligence caused her injury no later than November 14, 2012. Indeed, well over a year before she filed suit, she had three different dentists or oral surgeons tell her that the implant base the dentist placed in her jaw damaged a nerve, the dentist admitted he had used an oversized implant base and repeatedly apologized for causing her injury, and other dentists told the patient her nerve damage likely was permanent. Nothing more was required to start the limitations period.

The patient argued to the appeals court that she presented sufficient evidence to establish a triable issue of fact on whether the dentist’s misrepresentations about her symptoms delayed the accrual of her cause of action. According to her, he falsely assured her that her symptoms would resolve over time, and she justifiably relied on those assurances because she remained under his care. In support, she cited one of the separate statements she filed in the trial court.

The appeals court concluded this evidence failed to create a triable issue for several reasons. First, the court explained that the dentist’s alleged assurances that the patient’s condition would improve over time did not change her knowledge that he had damaged her nerve in negligently performing the implant procedure. Second, any reliance on the dentist’s alleged assurances was not reasonable as a matter of law, based on the information the patient received from other dentists. Third, her declaration contradicted her deposition testimony.

The patient also contended on appeal that evidence the dentist concealed or failed to disclose that the State of California had suspended his “Oral Conscious Sedation Certification” created a triable issue on when her cause of action accrued. The court of appeals, however, argued that his licensing status had no effect on her discovery of her injury and its negligent cause. Specifically, she provided no explanation for how the suspension of this certification prevented the dentist from being a health care provider, nor did she establish a causal connection between her nerve injury and the suspension of the dentist’s certification to use oral conscious sedation.

In his respondent’s brief, the dentist requested that the appeals court impose monetary sanctions against the patient for bringing a frivolous appeal and filing an opening brief that failed to comply with several California Rules of Court. The appeals court denied the request as procedurally improper because a responding party may not make a sanctions request in a respondent’s brief. Instead, the party must file a separate motion supported by a declaration that would enable the court to determine the appropriate amount of sanctions.

For these reasons, the judgment of the lower court was affirmed.

The medical malpractice lawyers at Neumann Law Group represent victims throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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