Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Plaintiff In A Health Care Liability Case Can't Add New Defendant

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Tennessee Supreme Court has unanimously held that after the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations, a plaintiff cannot amend her health care liability suit to substitute a health care provider to which the plaintiff had not given pre-suit notice as required by state law. 

The Tennessee Health Care Liability Act requires a plaintiff with a potential health care liability claim to give pre-suit written notice at least 60 days before filing a lawsuit to each health care provider that will be named as a defendant. When a plaintiff complies with the pre-suit notice requirement, the one-year statute of limitations for the filing of claims is extended by 120 days. A court can dismiss a lawsuit if the plaintiff fails to give pre-suit notice to a health care provider before filing suit. Pre-suit notice to a defendant encourages the investigation, negotiation, and possible settlement of a health care liability case before the plaintiff files suit. 

In 2012 at the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, Tiffinne Runions gave birth to a baby who died five days later. Runions, asserting that the baby died as a result of negligent medical care, sent pre-suit notice letters to seven potential defendants. Runions sued three of these entities within 120 days after the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. Runions did not give pre-suit notice to or sue the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District (“the District”), which was the owner and operator of the Hospital. When Runions discovered her mistake, she asked the trial court to allow her to substitute the District as a defendant. Although Runions did not give the District pre-suit notice, the District’s Director of Risk Management had received and acknowledged the pre-suit notice letter that Runions had sent to another potential defendant. The trial court allowed Runions to substitute the District as a defendant, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to decide whether the trial court erred in allowing Runions to amend her complaint to substitute the District as a defendant. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court, ruling that it erred by allowing Runions to substitute the District as a defendant based on the futility of the amendment. 

Under the Act, Runions had to give pre-suit notice of her claim to the District at least 60 days before she filed her lawsuit against it. The District’s knowledge of the claim did not excuse Runions’ failure to comply with the Act. Writing for the Court, Justice Sharon G. Lee said “the proper inquiry is whether the plaintiff gave pre-suit notice to the health care provider to be named a defendant, not whether the health care provider knew about the claim based on pre-suit notice of the claim directed to another potential defendant.” 

Based on the language of the Act, the Tennessee Legislature intended to require a plaintiff to give pre-suit notice to each potential defendant. The Supreme Court reasoned that if Runions, who did not comply with the pre-suit notice requirement of the Act, was allowed to amend her lawsuit to add the District, the filing of the claim might relate back to the original filing date. Yet the Act required Runions to give notice of her claim to the District before the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations, which she had not done. Thus, the amendment of the complaint to add the District as a defendant would be futile because the claim would be time-barred. The Supreme Court reversed the rulings of the trial court and the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. 

To read the unanimous opinion of the Court in Tiffinne Wendalyn Gail Runions et al. v. Jackson-Madison County General Hospital District et al., authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, please visit the Opinions section of tncourts.gov. Oral argument in this case was heard on the campus of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, as part of the Court’s S.C.A.L.E.S. (Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students) project.

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