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Guffey v. Lexington House, LLC

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 8, 2019

JAMES E. GUFFEY, ET AL.
v.
LEXINGTON HOUSE, LLC

          ON SUPERVISORY WRITS TO THE NINTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, PARISH OF RAPIDES

          GUIDRY, J.

         In this matter, the plaintiffs, two of the decedent's children, have brought wrongful death and survival actions under the Louisiana Medical Malpractice Act, La. R.S. 40:1231.1, et seq., against a nursing home, alleging that injuries the decedent received when the nursing home's employee dropped her while transferring her from a bath chair to her bed caused her to suffer injuries that ultimately resulted in her death. The decedent's granddaughter, rather than the plaintiffs, initially filed a request for a medical review panel ostensibly as the representative either of the decedent or her estate. The lower courts found that the granddaughter was a "claimant" within the meaning of the Medical Malpractice Act, namely La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) and (A)(16), and that her timely request had therefore suspended prescription with regard to the medical malpractice claims of the plaintiffs, even though they had not been named as claimants in the original request for a medical review panel. However, for the reasons set forth below, we find the lower courts erred in concluding the granddaughter was a proper "claimant" under the language of the Act on the basis that she was a succession representative for the decedent's estate. Because the initial request for the medical review panel was not made by a proper "claimant," prescription was not tolled. Accordingly, because the defendant's exception of prescription should have been granted, the trial court's ruling denying the exception of prescription is reversed.

         FACTS and PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 19, 2016, Geneva Guffey, an elderly patient at Lexington House Nursing Home in Alexandria sustained a laceration to her right leg while being transferred from a bath chair to her bed. Mrs. Guffey died several months later on May 16, 2016, allegedly because the injuries she received caused an insurmountable decline in her overall condition.

         On November 2, 2016, Deana Frederick, Mrs. Guffey's granddaughter, filed a complaint of medical malpractice against Lexington asserting it had committed malpractice in the transfer of Mrs. Guffey and requesting the formation of a medical review panel. Ms. Frederick identified herself in the letter to the Division of Administration as follows: "CLAIMANT: Deana Frederick, on Behalf of her Deceased Grandmother." Other than setting forth the allegation of what had transpired, the letter does not indicate in any other way Ms. Frederick's relationship to Mrs. Guffey, who had already passed away at the time of the filing of the complaint.

         Mrs. Guffey was survived by three sons, including George Guffey and James Guffey, who are the plaintiffs in the instant case. On May 18, 2017, more than one year after Mrs. Guffey's death, Ms. Frederick sent by facsimile a "supplement" to her request for a medical review panel seeking to add two claimants, James Guffey and Ms. Frederick as representative of the estate. The letter to the Division of Administration identified James as follows: "James E. Guffey, Individually and as a Surviving Child of Geneva Guffey." The letter also sought to add Ms. Frederick as the representative of Mrs. Guffey and her estate. The letter described her as follows: "Deanna Frederick, as Representative of Geneva Guffey and as Representative of Geneva Guffey's Estate."

         In response to the malpractice complaint, Lexington filed a discovery suit in the district court. On May 22, 2017, Lexington filed an exception of no right of action pursuant to La. R.S. 40:1231.8(B)(2)(a), asserting Ms. Frederick was not a proper party claimant because, as the granddaughter of the decedent, she is not included in the class of persons entitled to file a survival action under La. Civ. Code art. 2315.1 or a wrongful death action under La. Civ. Code art. 2315.2. [1] The trial court denied the exception, reasoning that the definition of "claimant" in La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) is not limited to those who will ultimately be allowed to assert a survival or wrongful death claim when the panel proceedings are concluded. The trial court considered the exception of no right of action to be premature at this stage of the proceedings. The court of appeal denied Lexington's writ application, finding no error in the trial court's ruling. In re Medical Review Panel Proceedings, Geneva Guffey v. Lexington House, LLC, 17-829 (La.App. 3 Cir. 2/2/18) (unpublished).

         Meanwhile, the medical review panel issued an opinion on November 15, 2017, finding that Lexington breached the standard of care and that Mrs. Guffey should have been transferred from the bath chair to the bed by two persons rather than one. The panel found the breach in care was a factor in the resultant damages, but it ultimately concluded the "laceration was a local discomfort for the patient [and] did not in any way exacerbate any of her chronic medical problems nor did it contribute to her ultimate demise."

         On January 28, 2018, within ninety days of the issuance of the panel opinion, James and George Guffey filed suit individually and on behalf of their mother. George Guffey had not been a claimant in the medical review panel proceedings, and Ms. Frederick was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

         Thereafter, Lexington filed an exception of prescription, alleging that James and George Guffey's survival and wrongful death actions were prescribed on their face, as they were filed more than one year from the date of the alleged malpractice. Lexington also alleged that neither of the plaintiffs had filed a malpractice claim with the Division of Administration within one year of the discovery of the malpractice or within one year of the death of their mother as required by La. R.S. 9:5628. With regard to George, Lexington asserted there was no suspension of prescription because he had never filed any medical malpractice claim until the lawsuit. With regard to James, Lexington asserted that the faxing of the letter to the Division of Administration on May 18, 2017, seeking to add him as a claimant, did not relate back to the earlier filing by Ms. Frederick, and thus did not suspend prescription. Lexington maintained that Ms. Frederick's original request to the Division of Administration did not suspend prescription because she was not a valid "claimant" on the basis that she was not a party to the litigation and she had no right of action to any damages via either a survival action or wrongful death action arising from the injuries and death of Mrs. Guffey.

         In opposition to the exception of prescription, the plaintiffs asserted a previous judge had ruled in the case that Ms. Frederick had possessed a right of action to file the claim. The plaintiffs introduced a number of exhibits showing that Ms. Frederick had a durable power of attorney from Mrs. Guffey, that both James and George stated Ms. Frederick had been acting on their behalf, that Ms. Frederick had been named the executrix in Mrs. Guffey's will, and that there was a judgment of possession of the estate in favor of Ms. Frederick.[2]

         After a hearing, the trial court denied the exception of prescription. The court referred to the prior ruling denying Lexington's exception of no right of action, and noted that, under the unique circumstances of this case, Ms. Frederick had a right of action because there was an actual relationship between Ms. Frederick and the decedent as granddaughter and caretaker and ultimately as the universal legatee. The trial court then found that Ms. Frederick's timely claim had suspended prescription, such that James Guffey had been properly added to the claim and that George Guffey's claims were not prescribed. The trial court cited Truxillo v. Thomas, 2016-0168 (La.App. 4 Cir. 8/31/16), 200 So.3d 972, for the proposition that the timely filing of a claim for medical malpractice by one claimant suspends prescription with regard to all other potential claimants even though they were not named in the original request for a medical review panel.[3]

         Lexington sought writs from this ruling in the court of appeal. The appellate court in a written opinion denied the writ, finding no error in the trial court's denial of the exception of prescription. Guffey v. Lexington House, LLC, 2018-475 (La.App. 3 Cir. 8/22/18), 254 So.3d 1. The court of appeal revisited Lexington's assertion that Ms. Frederick did not have a right of action to file her claim for a medical review panel because she was not a proper claimant and had no right to damages under the Civil Code. The appellate court held that, as a succession representative, she was a proper claimant under La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) of the Medical Malpractice Act, declining to limit "claimants" to the classes of people entitled to damages under the Civil Code. The appellate court went on to follow the holding of the Fourth Circuit in Truxillo, with regard to the suspending of prescription in favor of all potential but un-named claimants by a timely filed malpractice claim, and rejected the opposite holding by the First Circuit in Parks v. Louisiana Guest House, Inc., 13-2121 (La.App. 1 Cir. 9/30/14), 155 So.3d 609, writ denied, 14-2281 (La. 1/16/15), 157 So.3d 1131, and Rickerson v. Audubon Health & Rehabilitation Center, 2017-629 (La.App. 1 Cir. 12/21/17) (unpublished), writ denied, 2018-118 (La. 3/23/18), 239 So.3d 292 (applying Parks).[4]

         We granted Lexington's writ application to review the rulings of the lower court. Guffey v. Lexington House, LLC, 2018-1568 (La. 01/08/19), So.3d . In this court, Lexington makes essentially two arguments. First, Lexington contends Ms. Frederick was not a proper claimant under the Medical Malpractice Act because she did not meet the definition of a "claimant" pursuant to La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) and (A)(16), and because she was not entitled to seek damages as a result of Mrs. Guffey's death. Second, Lexington contends the timely filing of a medical malpractice claim suspends prescription only as to named claimants in the original request for a medical review panel and, because the plaintiffs here were not named as claimants and did not submit timely malpractice claims, their claims are prescribed. Because we find merit to Lexington's contention Ms. Frederick was not a proper "claimant" within the meaning of the Medical Malpractice Act, we need not reach the issue of whether the timely filing of a claim by a proper claimant suspends prescription for any other, un-named claimants.

         LAW and ANALYSIS

         The prescriptive period for actions based on medical malpractice is set forth in La. R.S. 9:5628(A), which requires such claims to be brought within one year of the alleged act, omission, or neglect, or within one year from the date of discovery.[5]Additionally, even as to claims filed within one year of the discovery of the alleged malpractice, all such claims must be filed, at the latest, within three years from the date of the alleged act, omission, or neglect. La. R.S. 9:5628(A). However, pursuant to the Medical Malpractice Act, a party must first present her proposed complaint to a medical review panel for review prior to the filing of suit in district court. La. R.S. 40:1231.8(A)(1)(a);[6] Warren v. Louisiana Medical Mutual Insurance Company, 2007-0492 (La. 6/26/09), 21 So.3d 186, 204 (on rehearing). The prescriptive period for filing a lawsuit set forth in La. R.S. 9:5628(A) is suspended during the full time that a claim is pending before a medical review panel and for ninety days following notification to the claimant or her attorney of the panel's opinion. See La. R.S. 40:1231.8(A)(2)(a).[7]

         Because the petition for medical malpractice herein was filed more than one year after the alleged malpractice and resulting death of Mrs. Guffey, the petition is timely only if prescription was suspended as to the plaintiffs' claims during the pendency of the proceedings before the medical review panel. The threshold issue thus presented is the scope of the term "claimant" under the Medical Malpractice Act and whether Ms. Frederick was a proper party to file a claim and initiate a medical review panel, thus tolling prescription, when she first sent her request to the Division of Administration. Lexington contends that a person who does not have a right of action for tort damages is not entitled to file a medical malpractice claim. The plaintiffs counter that the definition of "claimant" in the Medical Malpractice Act is broader than the class of persons who have a right to seek tort damages under the Civil Code, that Ms. Frederick is a proper claimant as a representative of the patient and her estate, and that the purpose of the medical review panel procedure is to weed out superfluous claims rather than determine or fix legal rights to damages.

         To resolve the issue presented, this court now turns to the language of the statute. The Civil Code directs that the court attempt to ascertain the meaning of the statute under review by first looking to the language of the statute. When a law is clear and unambiguous, and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the legislature. La. Civ. Code art. 9; see also Touchard v. Williams, 617 So.2d 885, 888 (La. 1993).

         The Medical Malpractice Act is very specific on who may bring a claim and initiate a medical review panel, with all the benefits and consequences that follow therefrom. The Act defines "claimant" as follows: "'Claimant' means a patient or representative or any person, including a decedent's estate, seeking or who has sought recovery of damages or future medical care and related benefits under this Part. All persons claiming to have sustained damages as a result of injuries to or death of any one patient are considered a single claimant." La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4). The Act also defines "representative" as follows: "'Representative' means the spouse, parent, guardian, trustee, attorney or other legal agent of the patient." La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(16).

         In the instant case, the court of appeal addressed the meaning of "claimant" under the Act, ultimately concluding Ms. Frederick was a claimant pursuant to La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) when she filed the original request for a medical review panel with the Division of Administration. The court first noted that the request for a medical review panel is a prerequisite to and not the equivalent of a suit for medical malpractice. 2018-475, p. 10, 254 So.3d at 8, quoting Houghton v. Our Lady of the Lake Hosp., Inc., 2003-0135 (La.App. 1 Cir. 7/16/03, 859 So.2d 103, 105-06). Although Ms. Frederick had not specifically designated herself as the succession representative when she filed the original complaint, the court found the complaint "made clear" that Ms. Frederick was filing on behalf of her deceased grandmother. The court pointed out that Ms. Frederick had a power of attorney for two years prior to Mrs. Guffey's death and that she was named as the executrix in Mrs. Guffey's will. The court observed that Ms. Frederick amended the complaint to "reflect" that she was the representative of the estate and that she introduced documents in opposition to the exception of no right of action proving she was the succession representative.

         The court below found there was conflict between the definitions of who has a right of action under the Civil Code and who can bring a claim under the Medical Malpractice Act. The court reasoned the legislature could have defined "claimant" as those who have a right of action under La. Civ. Code art. 2315.1 or 2315.2, but chose not to do so, and specifically included "representative" and "a decedent's estate" as claimants. The court noted La. R.S. 40:1231.1(A)(4) does not state that the representative or the estate can only be a claimant when the classes of persons listed in La. Civ. Code arts. 2315.1 and 2315.2 do not exist. The court found a difference between having a right of action to bring a complaint before the medical review panel and having a right of action to file a suit in the district court once the panel proceedings have concluded. The court cited Truxillo, supra, for the proposition that there is no focus on claimants during the medical review panel process and that the Act contemplates the filing of a single request for a panel with the intent that the rights of all potential plaintiffs are protected. Guffey, pp. 12-13, 254 So.3d at 9(quoting Truxillo, supra, 200 So.3d at 976).

         The Truxillo court had also indirectly examined the scope of "claimant" within the meaning of the Act. It found that under the definition of claimant in the Act, "any person" is considered a "claimant" and that the term "claimant" is "not limited to those persons for whom our laws afford a right of ...


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