Buechel v. Five Star Quality Care, Inc.

Decision Date07 March 2008
Docket NumberNo. 06-1239.,06-1239.
Citation745 N.W.2d 732
PartiesBernard BUECHEL, Individually and as Coexecutor of the Estate of Juanita Buechel, Angela Pauly, Individually and as Coexecutor of the Estate of Juanita Buechel, Daniel Buechel, Monica Hagen, Mary Rose, Teresa Smith, and Joanne Mallicoat, Appellants, v. FIVE STAR QUALITY CARE, INC. d/b/a Prairie Ridge Care & Rehabilitation; Fsq, Inc.; Shopco-IA, LLC; Five Star Quality Care-IA, LLC; SNH-Iowa, Inc.; Five Star Quality Care-IA, Inc.; Senior Housing Properties Trust; Sptihs Properties Trust; Jane Does — Admr'r; Dir. of Nursing; Nursing Assistants; Johnston Enters., Inc. d/b/a Johnston Med. Staffing; and Mari Beth Johnston a/k/a Beth Johnston a/k/a Mari B. Hefta, Individually and d/b/a Johnston Med. Staffing; DEF Corp.; GHI Corp.; Joerns Furniture Co., Inc.; Joerns Healthcare, Inc.; Sunrise Habitat, Inc. n/k/a Sunrise Med. CCG, Inc., Defendants, Sunrise Habitat, Inc. n/k/a Sunrise Med. HHG, Inc., Appellee.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Christopher D. Stombaugh and Sheila Stuart Kelley of Kopp, McKichan, Geyer, Skemp & Stombaugh, L.L.P., Platteville, Wisconsin, David W. Terry of Johnson, Fellows, Lake & Terry, St. Louis, Missouri, and R. Craig Oppel of Allbee, Barclay, Allison & Denning, P.C., Muscatine, for appellants.

Robert D. Houghton and Diane Kutzko of Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.L.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

In this case, we are presented with an appeal of a district court order granting summary judgment to one defendant in a wrongful death action on the grounds that the claim was barred by the relevant statutes of limitations and repose. For the reasons presented below, we affirm the order of the district court.

I. Factual Background and Prior Proceedings.

Juanita Buechel died during the early morning hours of January 20, 2001 at Prairie Ridge Care & Rehabilitation (Prairie Ridge), a nursing home facility located in Mediapolis, Iowa. On the following day, the family met with the nursing home administrator. The administrator informed the family that Juanita was found asphyxiated, lodged in the wide space between the mattress and the bed rails. The family was told that when staff members discovered Juanita, she was found sitting on the floor with her back against the bed and her head and throat caught between the bed rail and the mattress.

The circumstances of her death suggested that Juanita had accidentally strangled herself. An autopsy by Dr. Eugenio Torres concluded that death was the result of accidental asphyxiation due to compression of the neck.

Both the Des Moines County Sheriff and the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (DIA) conducted investigations. The sheriff concluded that Juanita's death was accidental, noting that Dr. Torres indicated that the beds in the facility may have to be changed so that no one else would die as a result of the same conditions. The DIA report, dated February 22, 2001, also found that the death was accidental, noting that the mattress used was not the standard-in-size for the bed. Both reports were made available to Juanita's family shortly after they were prepared.

On January 15, 2003, the plaintiffs filed an action against the nursing home alleging negligence in connection with Juanita's death. The petition also included a products liability claim against the unnamed manufacturer of the bed. The petition certified pursuant to Iowa Code section 613.18(3) (2003) that the manufacturer of the bed had not yet been identified.

Plaintiffs commenced formal discovery upon the filing of the suit. On September 15, 2003, the plaintiffs learned that the Joerns Furniture Company and Sunrise Medical, Joerns's successor, manufactured the bed in question. Plaintiffs, however, did not move to amend their petition to include Joerns and Sunrise until October 28, 2003, more than a month after these entities were first identified in discovery.

After the motion to amend was granted, Sunrise asserted defenses arising out of both the applicable statute of limitations and the statute of repose. Sunrise argued that the cause of action accrued on January 21, 2001, when the family learned that Juanita's death was caused by accidental asphyxiation when her head was caught between the mattress and the bed frame. Armed with this information, Sunrise asserts that the plaintiffs were on inquiry notice regarding all potential causes of action arising from Juanita's death, including those against the bed manufacturer. According to Sunrise, the two-year statute of limitations began running on January 21, 2001.

Sunrise concedes that by filing the action on January 15, 2003 and making the appropriate certification under Iowa Code section 613.18(3), the running of the statute of limitations was thereafter tolled. Iowa Code section 613.18(3) provides that the two-year statute of limitations is tolled "against the manufacturer upon certification that the manufacturer is unknown until it is identified in discovery." Sunrise argues that the statute of limitations ran from the date the cause of action accrued until the Iowa Code section 613.18(3) certification was filed, it was then tolled, and began to run again when the plaintiffs discovered the information necessary to name Sunrise as a party. According to Sunrise, while the statute of limitations was tolled by the filing of the petition with the Iowa Code section 613.18(3) certification, there were only five days remaining in which to file a claim once the plaintiffs learned the identity of the manufacturer. Thus, the statute of limitations for plaintiffs' claims against Sunrise expired on September 20, 2003.

The plaintiffs countered that the cause of action did not, in fact, accrue on January 21, 2001. Plaintiffs claim that the reports available at the time listed the cause of death to be an improperly-sized mattress. The plaintiffs claim to have been "thrown off the scent" of a possible products liability claim by these reports. According to the plaintiffs, an issue of fact was raised regarding their diligence in discovering this cause of action.

Sunrise also argued that plaintiffs' claim was barred by the statute of repose. Under Iowa Code section 614.1(2A)(a), actions alleging products liability claims "shall not be commenced more than fifteen years after the product was first purchased . . . or installed for use. . . ."

The district court granted Sunrise's motion for summary judgment. According to the district court, where death occurs under plainly suspicious or unusual circumstances, a reasonably diligent person is charged with the duty to investigate. The district court emphasized that the plaintiffs had knowledge supporting some sort of actionable claim, and that knowledge included information that the mattress and bed frame were involved. As a result, the district court reasoned that plaintiffs had a duty from January 21, 2001 onward to discover all theories that they might wish to pursue in support of their wrongful death action.

In the alternative, the district court also found that the claim against Sunrise was barred by the statute of repose.

II. Standard of Review.

We review a district court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment for correction of errors at law. Schlote v. Dawson, 676 N.W.2d 187, 188 (Iowa 2004). Summary judgment is available only when there is no genuine issue of material fact. Drainage Dist. No. 119, Clay County v. Inc. City of Spencer, 268 N.W.2d 493, 499 (Iowa 1978). "A `genuine issue' of material fact exists if the evidence is such that a reasonable fact finder could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Baratta v. Polk Co. Health Serv., 588 N.W.2d 107, 109 (Iowa 1999) (citing Fees v. Mut. Fire & Auto. Ins. Co., 490 N.W.2d 55, 57 (Iowa 1992)). The burden of showing the nonexistence of a material fact is on the moving party, and every legitimate inference that reasonably can be deduced from the evidence should be afforded the nonmoving party. Randol v. Roe Enters., Inc., 524 N.W.2d 414, 415-16 (Iowa 1994) (quoting Martinko v. H-N-W Assocs., 393 N.W.2d 320, 321 (Iowa 1986)).

III. Discussion.

A. Preliminary Issue of Jurisdiction. After submission of this appeal, this court requested supplemental briefing on the question of whether this was an appeal as a matter of right or whether the appeal was interlocutory in nature. Specifically, we asked the parties to address the issue of severability in light of Iowa's Comparative Fault Statute.

Whether a complete dismissal of one defendant in a multi-defendant action is final for purposes of appeal turns on the question of whether the interest of the dismissed defendant is severable from the claims against other defendants. McGuire v. City of Cedar Rapids, 189 N.W.2d 592, 595 (Iowa 1971). Where the interests of the dismissed defendant are severable, a judgment or decree dismissing one defendant is a final judgment as to them. Id. at 597. In this case, the only claim against Sunrise is based on products liability, while the claim against Prairie Ridge and the other defendants is based upon negligence.

The parties each argue that because the wrongful death claims are based upon different theories, they are wholly severable. We disagree. Iowa's Comparative Fault Statute is codified in Iowa Code chapter 668. That chapter defines fault to include claims based upon theories of negligence as well as those rooted in strict liability, such as products liability claims. Iowa Code § 668.1. Although comparative fault analysis does not in and of itself determine if a defendant is liable, it does determine the relative liability as between the named defendants. In addition, our comparative fault statute precludes fault-sharing with a defendant not party to the suit. Spaur v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., 510 N.W.2d 854, 863 (Iowa 1994). Sunrise's dismissal, therefore, potentially affects the percentage of fault awarded to Prairie Ridge and the remaining defendants. McGuire, 189 N.W.2d at 597. As...

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