Branch v. St. Bernards Healthcare

Decision Date09 March 2021
Docket NumberCV-20-53
Citation2022 Ark. App. 123,643 S.W.3d 22
Parties Emery BRANCH, Individually and as the Duly Appointed Personal Representative of Her Unborn Child, A.B., Appellant v. ST. BERNARDS HEALTHCARE; St. Bernards Hospital, Inc., a/k/a St. Bernards Regional Medical Center a/k/a St. Barnards Medical Center; St. Bernards OB-GYN Associates; Martin Kosciuk, M.D.; Serena Vance, M.D.; Brittany Smith, M.D.; Samantha Fry, RN; Christy Simpkins, RN; Callie Wagner, RN (Talley); James Gillean, RN; Madison Thomason, RN; Proassurance Indemnity Company, Inc.; John Doe 1 ; John Doe 2; and John Doe 3, Appellees
CourtArkansas Court of Appeals

The Cochran Firm Memphis, by: Howard B. Manis ; and Brian G. Brooks, Attorney at Law, PLLC, by: Brian G. Brooks, for appellant.

Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP, Little Rock, by: Michelle T. Ator and Kimberly D. Young ; and Waddell, Cole & Jones, PLLC, by: Paul D. Waddell and Samuel Waddell, Jonesboro, for appellees.

LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge

The appellant, Emery Branch, delivered a stillborn son, A.B., at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro on December 24, 2016. Shortly before the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations, Ms. Branch filed a complaint alleging medical negligence against several entities in the St. Bernards Healthcare system as well as the physicians and registered nurses who treated her in the emergency and obstetrics units in St. Bernards Medical Center. The complaint alleged an individual claim on Ms. Branch's behalf, a survival claim for A.B., and a wrongful-death claim on behalf of A.B.’s beneficiaries.

The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the appellees on the survival and wrongful-death claims. The court ruled that Ms. Branch lacked standing to bring the survival claim because she had not yet been appointed administrator of A.B.’s estate, as required by Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-101(a)(1) (Repl. 2005). The circuit court further ruled that the wrongful-death claim was a nullity. Arkansas's wrongful-death statute requires all of A.B.’s statutory heirs to bring those claims in the absence of an appointed personal representative, see Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-102(b), and A.B.’s putative father, Allen Buchanan, was not a plaintiff in the case. The circuit court also ruled that an amended survival claim, which Ms. Branch filed as the administrator of A.B.’s estate after the statute of limitations had expired, did not relate back to the timely filed complaint. Ms. Branch now appeals the circuit court's judgment. We affirm in part and reverse and remand in part.

I. Factual Background

According to the facts alleged in the complaint, Ms. Branch arrived at St. Bernards emergency room shortly before midnight on December 22, 2016. She presented with elevated blood pressure, complaints of shortness of breath, and chest pain. The attending physician, appellee Dr. Martin Kosciuk, evaluated Ms. Branch for a pulmonary embolus, and finding none, he discharged her approximately three hours later. Ms. Branch returned to the emergency room shortly before midnight on December 23, 2016, whereupon she presented with severe back pain and high blood pressure

. She was admitted to St. Bernards inpatient labor and delivery department, where fetal monitors were unable to detect a heartbeat in Ms. Branch's unborn child. Ms. Branch delivered A.B. stillborn later that day.

On December 21, 2018, just days before the expiration of the statute of limitations, Ms. Branch filed a complaint "individually and as parent and for her use and benefit and for other statutory beneficiaries of her minor child, [A.B.]." The complaint alleged that the appellees were medically negligent because they failed to timely recognize the signs of severe preeclampsia

and provide appropriate treatment, causing injury to Ms. Branch and causing A.B.’s death. As indicated above, the complaint sought damages for Ms. Branch individually; for A.B.’s estate on a survival claim pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-101 ; and for A.B.’s wrongful-death beneficiaries, including "Emery Branch, mother of decedent A.B. and Allen Buchanan, father of decedent A.B."

On January 29, 2019, after the statute of limitations had expired, one of the defendants named in the complaint, Dr. Serena Vance, moved to dismiss the wrongful-death claim. Dr. Vance argued that the wrongful-death statute, Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-102(b) (Supp. 2021), requires actions to be brought "by the personal representative of the decedent's estate," or "if no personal representative exists, the action must then be brought by all of the statutory beneficiaries of the deceased person." The doctor asserted that Ms. Branch "is not the personal representative of A.B.’s estate," and "not all of A.B.’s statutory beneficiaries are joined as plaintiffs to the action" because A.B.’s father, Allen Buchanan, "is not named a plaintiff in [the] action." For these reasons, Dr. Vance asserted that the wrongful-death claim "[was] a nullity." The remaining defendants later adopted Dr. Vance's motion to dismiss.

On March 11, 2019, St. Bernards, the registered nurses named as defendants in the complaint, and St. Bernards insurance company moved for partial summary judgment on the survival claim. This motion was also later adopted by the remaining defendants. In the motion, the defendants asserted that Ms. Branch lacked standing to bring a survival claim on behalf of A.B.’s estate because Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-101(a)(1) provides that only his personal representative could pursue such a claim. The motion further contended that any amendment to add Ms. Branch as the administrator of A.B.’s estate, if she was ever so appointed, would not relate back to the original complaint because "the original complaint is a nullity because [Ms. Branch] lacks standing," and "an amended complaint would constitute the filing of a new suit."

On March 13, 2019, Ms. Branch filed an amended complaint "individually and as the duly appointed personal representative of her unborn child, A.B., deceased." An order appointing Ms. Branch as the administrator of A.B.’s estate, dated March 11, 2019, was attached to the amended complaint. Like the original, the amended complaint asserted that the appellees were medically negligent and sought damages for Ms. Branch individually, for A.B.’s estate under Arkansas's survival statute, and for Ms. Branch as A.B.’s sole wrongful-death beneficiary. In a departure from the initial complaint, the amended wrongful-death claim asserted that "the wrongful death beneficiaries include only Emery Branch, mother of decedent A.B.," and "[t]he putative father of the decedent, Allen Buchanan, has not legitimized A.B. and as such is not recognized under Arkansas law as a statutory beneficiary or heir at law."

On March 19, 2019, Dr. Vance filed a reply in support of her motion to dismiss, which the remaining defendants also adopted. The reply incorporated the arguments in Dr. Vance's first motion to dismiss and additionally argued that the amended survival and wrongful-death claims could not relate back to the timely filed initial complaint. Among other things, the doctor argued that the original claims were nullities because Ms. Branch lacked standing and, therefore, provided "nothing to which the amended complaint could relate back." Additionally, Dr. Vance asserted that "individual heirs at law," like Ms. Branch in the original complaint, "are entirely distinct legal persons from even the same individuals in their later capacity as appointed administrators, and thus different parties." As a result, "an amended complaint that substitutes the original plaintiff and replaces [her] with an entirely new plaintiff does not constitute an amendment to the original complaint but the filing of a new lawsuit" that, if filed beyond the applicable statute of limitations—as here—must be dismissed as untimely.

Ms. Branch urged the circuit court to deny the motion to dismiss and the motion for partial summary judgment. While she conceded that the survival claim in the original complaint was a nullity because she had not yet been appointed administrator of A.B.’s estate, she argued that the original wrongful-death claim remained viable despite Mr. Buchanan's absence as a plaintiff. Specifically, Ms. Branch argued that she sufficed as A.B.’s sole statutory heir under the supreme court's decision in Scoggins v. Medlock , 2011 Ark. 194, 381 S.W.3d 781. Scoggins , she said, directs that a putative father must legally establish his paternity before he can be a wrongful-death beneficiary or, as here, a statutory heir necessary to bring suit in the absence of a personal representative. The original wrongful-death claim survived because Mr. Buchanan had not yet established his paternity; therefore, he was not required to be named as a plaintiff in the original complaint. Ms. Branch further argued that the amended survival claim should not be dismissed because it arose from the same "conduct, transaction, or occurrence" set forth in the original (allegedly viable) wrongful-death claim.

On October 8, 2019, the circuit court entered an order granting the motion to dismiss the wrongful-death claim and granting the motion for summary judgment on the survival claim. Regarding the wrongful-death claim, the circuit court observed that Scoggins was distinguishable because it involved an interpretation of Arkansas paternity statutes and a putative father's claim to wrongful-death benefits in a lawsuit properly filed by the personal representative of the stillborn child. The circuit court also observed that the "wrongful death statute does not mandate the entry of a formal order of paternity." Rather, "whoever the decedent's father is, he is an heir at law and a wrongful death beneficiary under the plain meaning of Ark. Code Ann. § 16-62-102(b) and (d)." Additionally, while "an order establishing paternity was never sought, there appears to be no dispute that Allen Buchanan is the father of...

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  • Johnson v. Universal Health Servs., Inc., CV-21-468
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    ...disposition, the evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the party resisting the motion. Branch v. St. Bernards Healthcare , 2022 Ark. App. 123, 643 S.W.3d 22. When the parties agree on the facts, however, this court simply determines whether the appellee was entitled to judgment ......
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    ...When the parties agree on the facts, however, this court simply determines whether the appellee was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. As to issues of law presented, this court's review is de novo. Id. Arkansas Code Annotated section 16-62-102(a)(1) (Supp. 2021) provides in part t......

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