California Supreme Court Holds Special Statute of Limitations Applies to Negligence Action Against Hospital

The California Supreme Court recently held that the special limitations period for professional negligence actions against health care providers — rather than the general personal injury limitations period — applied to a negligence action brought by a patient injured after falling from a hospital bed.According to section 335.1 of the California Code of Civil Procedure, a personal injury action generally must be filed within two years of the date of the incident. However, a special statute of limitations applies to actions “for injury or death against a health care provider based on such person’s alleged professional negligence.” Unlike most personal injury actions, professional negligence actions against health care providers must be brought within three years after the date of the injury or one year after the plaintiff’s discovery of the injury by reasonable diligence, whichever occurs first.

In March 2009, plaintiff Catherine Flores, a patient at defendant Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (PIH Health) in Whittier, was injured when the latch on her hospital bedrail failed, and the rail collapsed, causing her to fall to the floor. The rail had been raised according to the doctor’s orders following an assessment. Just under two years later, Flores filed suit against PIH Health for general negligence and premises liability. Flores specifically claimed that PIH Health negligently failed to inspect and maintain its equipment.

PIH Health demurred to the complaint, arguing that the complaint was governed by section 340.5’s statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging professional negligence. Since Flores discovered the injury when she fell out of her hospital bed, the complaint was untimely because it was filed more than one year afterward.

Flores disputed that her claim arose from professional negligence. She admitted that a doctor had made a “medical decision” to order her bedrails to be raised, following a “medical assessment” of her condition. But she claimed, however, that the rendition of professional services ended when the doctor assessed Flores and determined to raise the sidewalls on her bed. PIH Health’s negligent conduct, she argued, was “clearly ordinary, and not professional, negligence.” It was therefore subject to the ordinary two-year limitations period for personal injury actions. The trial court sided with PIH Health, sustained the demurrer, and dismissed the lawsuit. Flores appealed.

The appeals court reversed and ordered the trial court to reinstate the complaint. The court reasoned that PIH Health’s alleged failure to use reasonable care in maintaining its premises and its alleged failure to take reasonable precautions to make a dangerous condition safe “sound in ordinary negligence because the negligence did not occur in the rendering of professional services.”

The California Supreme Court granted PIH Health’s petition for review.

The question presented to the California Supreme Court was whether Flores’ claim was governed by the special limitations period in section 340.5 or by the usual two-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions in section 335.1. The state high court held that Flores’ claim was governed by the former.

The court reasoned that Flores’ injuries resulted from PIH Health’s alleged negligence in the use or maintenance of equipment related to her medical diagnosis and treatment. The high court reasoned that when a doctor decides to order a hospital bed’s rails to be raised to accommodate a patient’s physical condition, and the patient is injured as a result of the negligent use of the rails, the negligence occurs “in the rendering of professional services.” This, the court held, is professional negligence for the purposes of section 340.5. The court concluded that since the plaintiff’s injury resulted from alleged negligence in the use and maintenance of equipment needed to carry out the doctor’s medical treatment, Flores’ claim sounded in professional rather than ordinary negligence.

Thus, the trial court correctly determined that section 340.5 was the applicable statute of limitations, and the appeals court erred in holding the contrary. The California Supreme Court therefore reversed the appeals court and reinstated the trial court’s ruling.

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

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