California Supreme Court ruling in medical negligence cases has far reaching effect

By Dee Thompson | Nov 26, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO -- A recent California Supreme Court court ruling has broken new ground when it comes to the interpretation of the statute of limitations regarding medical negligence lawsuits.

The California Supreme Court ruled in the case of Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital that the medical negligence statute of limitation applied from the time of the injury because a doctor’s order was in effect. Flores was allegedly injured due to a bed rail malfunction.The court said that the bed rail was “integrally related” to his medical care, so for that reason, it was not a general negligence or premises liability case but a medical malpractice case.

In the case of Nava v. Saddleback Memorial Medical Center et al. (Case No. G052218), the plaintiff was a patient being transferred on a gurney in 2012 and he fell, breaking his clavicle and patella. Hospital staff transferring him were purportedly acting under a doctor’s orders. Flores was cited in the ruling in the Nava case in the California Court of Appeals [Fourth Appellate District, Division Three] on Oct.18.

Defendants in the Nava case filed motions for summary judgment, arguing that the statute of limitations for a medical negligence claim, which is one year, was the one that applied, based on the ruling in Flores. 

“The statute of limitations under a general negligence claim is two years, and Nava actually filed this just shy of the two-year mark," Nava defense attorney Vangi Johnson told the Northern California Record. "The statute of limitations for a medical negligence claim is one year from the date that the patient knew or should have known of an alleged injury. In this instance, Nava knew on the date that he was dropped at the hospital that he had an injury, so the statute of limitations started to run on that day. Where he ran into trouble was when he didn’t file his complaint until well after the one-year statute of limitations [for medical negligence] had run.”

Very few cases are heard by the California Supreme Court. Johnson said that Flores was being watched by the medical community and the legal community closely. 

"It’s important to both communities that claims are properly identified and there are reasons why plaintiffs and their attorneys characterize them other ways," Johnson said.  

Medical malpractice cases have a one-year statute of limitations for filing after the injury. Another reason plaintiffs' attorneys prefer to file a case under the general negligence statute is that damages in medical malpractice cases are capped at $250,000 for pain and suffering.

“It’s a solidification of a statute using different language. The unique language in Flores was 'integrally related' and that specific language was used by the Nava court in their opinion," Johnson said.

Nava appealed when summary judgment was granted, which effectively ends a case in favor of the defendant, and the case went to the Fourth Appellate District, Division Three. The court ruled on Oct. 18 that the defendant's motions for summary judgment granted by the lower courts should be upheld because the statute of limitations had run for medical negligence at the time Nava was injured. Nava was filed as a general negligence case.

Hospital staff transferring Nava were acting under doctor’s orders, court documents show. Therefore, the Court of Appeals ruled, it wasn’t a general negligence case, but a medical negligence case, and governed by a shorter statute of limitations - one year from the date plaintiff knew or should have known of an injury.

The plaintiff in Nava has 40 days from the date of the appeals court ruling in which to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court but Johnson doesn’t think that’s likely, given the way the Supreme Court ruled in Flores.

Johnson notes that the court felt the Flores case was the only one deemed on point in the Nava ruling. 

“The Nava case was argued after Flores was decided, so what the court of appeals ended up saying in Nava was any other cases that pre-date Flores, we don’t need to comment on in this case. None of those cases really matter. Flores is it," Johnson said.

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