Catherine Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital
Court of Appeal, Second District (February 27, 2013)
Plaintiff Catherine Flores (“Flores”) was a patient at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital. On March 5, 2009, she suffered injuries when a hospital bed rail collapsed, causing her to fall to the floor. Almost two years later, on March 2, 2011, Flores filed suit against the hospital for personal injury based on negligence and premises liability.
The hospital demurred to Flores’ complaint on the basis that it sounded in “professional negligence” and was barred by the one-year statute of limitations set forth in the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 (MICRA), codified at Code of Civil Procedure § 340.5 (“Section 340.5”). The hospital argued that the negligence described by Flores was an “integral part of the professional services rendered.”
Flores opposed the demurrer, arguing that her claims arose out of the hospital’s ordinary negligence such that the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury (Code Civ. Proc. § 335.1) applied, making her action timely. She argued that the hospital’s failure to properly latch the side rails was an act of ordinary negligence occurring after all professional services were rendered.
The trial court sustained the hospital’s demurrer and denied Flores’ request to amend the complaint, finding that Flores’ action sounded in “professional negligence” and was time barred under Section 340.5. Flores appealed.
The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that Flores’ action was governed by the two-year personal injury statute of limitations, rather than the one-year medical malpractice statute of limitations. The legislative intent of MICRA was to limit damages for lawsuits against a health care provider based on “professional negligence claims” which are defined as “a negligent act or omission to act by a health care provider in the rendering of professional services…” The Court of Appeal stated that the central issue in determining which statute of limitations applies to Flores’ complaint depends on the characterization of the alleged negligence as ordinary negligence or professional negligence. The Court of Appeal then discussed California case law pre-dating MICRA. In Gin Non Louie v. Chinese Hospital Assn. (1967) 249 Cal.App.2d 774, plaintiff Gin broke his hip after falling out of his hospital bed. The reviewing court held that the hospital had committed professional negligence by failing to notify Gin’s physician of plaintiff’s deteriorating condition and failing to provide supervision. In Gopaul v. Herrick Memorial Hosp. (1974) 38 Cal.App.3d 1002, a patient with pneumonia who was left unsupervised and unstrapped, fell off a hospital gurney. The reviewing court affirmed non-suit in favor of the hospital after determining that professional malpractice had not been committed because the assessment of whether there was a need to strap plaintiff to the gurney did not require professional skill, prudence and diligence.
The Court of Appeal also reviewed post-MICRA case law. In Murillo v. Good Samaritan Hospital (1979) 99 Cal.App. 3d 50, plaintiff was admitted for treatment of shingles and then fell out of bed at night because the rails were not raised. The Murillo court determined that these facts established professional negligence. The Murillo court disagreed with Gopaul, stating that the test for professional negligence was not whether the situation calls for high/low skill, but whether the negligent act occurred in the rendering of services for which the health care provider is licensed. In Bellamy v. Appellate Department (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 797, the reviewing court deemed the hospital to be professionally negligent when plaintiff fell after being left unattended on an x-ray table.
After reviewing these cases, the Court of Appeal concluded that Flores pled facts amounting to ordinary negligence, bringing her action within the two-year statute of limitations set forth in Section 335.1. The Court of Appeal distinguished previous cases involving falls from hospital beds and gurneys where injury to a patient resulted from the failure to properly secure or supervise the patient. Here, Flores was injured when the bed rail collapsed due to equipment failure – as opposed to the hospital’s failure to supervise or secure her. There was no negligent act by the hospital that occurred in the rendering of professional services. The court rejected Murillo’s dictum that a negligently maintained, unsafe condition of a hospital’s premises resulting in a patient’s personal injury is professional negligence. Accordingly, Flores’ action was governed by the two-year statute of limitations for ordinary negligence as set forth in Section 335.1.
The critical inquiry in determining whether professional negligence exists, thus triggering the one-year statute of limitations under MICRA, is whether the alleged negligence occurred in the rendering of professional services. A court will look to the facts of the complaint in order to determine whether the MICRA one-year statute of limitations for professional negligence claims applies.
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