Caves v. Yarbrough

Decision Date25 September 2008
Docket NumberNo. 2006-CA-01857-SCT.,2006-CA-01857-SCT.
Citation991 So.2d 142
PartiesIrene CAVES, Statutory Representative of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of Jimmy Caves v. Benjamin YARBROUGH, M.D., and Franklin County Memorial Hospital.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Joel W. Howell, III, Jackson, attorney for appellant.

James Scott Rogers, Wade G. Manor, Jackson, Lane B. Reed, Meadville, attorneys for appellees.


DICKINSON, Justice, for the Court.

¶ 1. The appellant's motion for rehearing is granted. The previous opinions are withdrawn and these opinions are substituted therefor.

¶ 2. This is a medical-negligence lawsuit filed pursuant to the Mississippi Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"),1 which requires that suits be filed within one year "next after the date of the tortious, wrongful or otherwise actionable conduct on which the liability phase of the action is based." The question presented is whether the plaintiff's claims are time-barred.

¶ 3. We hold today that: (1) the statute of limitations for claims filed under the MTCA begins to run when all of the elements of a tort exist, that is, when some damage to the plaintiff proximately results from the defendant's negligence; and (2) the doctrine of stare decisis requires us to recognize a discovery rule for MTCA claims, that is, that the statute of limitations shall not begin to run until the plaintiff knows — or by exercise of reasonable diligence, should know — that a cause of action exists. We reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment and remand for a hearing on this question of whether, within a year of providing notice to the defendants, the claimants knew or, by exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of both Mr. Caves's injury and the alleged tortious act or omission which proximately caused it.


¶ 4. On April 15, 2000, 51-year-old Jimmy Caves began experiencing abdominal pain. The next day, Caves's condition worsened, and he suffered episodes of vomiting and diarrhea. He was admitted to the emergency room at Franklin County Memorial Hospital (the "Hospital"), where he was evaluated by Dr. Benjamin Yarbrough, who, after administering intravenous fluids and medication, ordered lab work and an abdominal x-ray.

¶ 5. Mr. Caves's condition continued to deteriorate and, in the early morning hours of April 17, Dr. Yarbrough ordered more lab work and another abdominal x-ray. After consulting another physician over the phone, Dr. Yarbrough decided to transfer Mr. Caves, but, before he could do so, Mr. Caves's heart stopped. He was resuscitated, only to have his heart stop again a little more than an hour later. He was pronounced dead at 3:35 a.m.

¶ 6. Mr. Caves's wife, Irene,2 was present at the hospital when he was admitted, and she remained there until his death. In an effort to learn the cause of her husband's death, Mrs. Caves agreed to an autopsy, which was performed that night. The next day, the coroner informed Mrs. Caves that the cause of death was a "septic colon," which was later recorded as the cause of death on Mr. Caves's death certificate.

¶ 7. On April 21, 2000, Mrs. Caves requested and obtained the medical records pertaining to her husband's death. According to her testimony, when she attempted to obtain a copy of the autopsy report from the pathologist's office, Mrs. Caves was told there would be a delay due to the death of the doctor who had performed the autopsy. She continued to request the report on a weekly basis until September 2000, when she moved out of state and turned the pursuit of the autopsy report over to her son, Kevin, who continued to request the report. Although the autopsy report was completed on September 28, 2000, Mrs. Caves asserts that she did not receive it until March of 2001.

¶ 8. Prior to receiving the autopsy report, Mrs. Caves contacted an attorney, because she suspected wrongdoing on the part of the Hospital and Dr. Yarbrough. Based on the information available at the time (which did not include the autopsy report), the attorney declined to take Mrs. Caves's case. She then contacted another attorney, who took her case and retained Dr. Gary Pfortmiller, a full-time emergency-room physician, to review the case. After reviewing the medical records and the autopsy report,3 Dr. Pfortmiller provided an affidavit dated April 11, 2001, which stated that Mr. Caves's death was "caused by or contributed to by care far below the minimal standard."

¶ 9. On February 13, 2002, Mrs. Caves provided the Hospital notice of a claim under the MTCA. On April 12, 2002, Mrs. Caves followed up the notice with a lawsuit against the Hospital and Dr. Yarbrough.4 The Defendants responded with an answer and a motion for summary judgment, asserting that Mrs. Caves's claims were time-barred because she failed to bring them within the MTCA's one-year statute of limitations. Mrs. Caves responded by arguing that she had provided notice and had filed her claim within one year of her discovery of her claim.5

¶ 10. The trial court granted summary judgment, holding that the discovery rule did not apply because Mr. Caves's injuries were not latent.6 Mrs. Caves timely appealed. While both parties raised and briefed the issue of whether a discovery rule should be applied to the facts of this case, neither party addressed the general application by this Court of a discovery rule to the MTCA.

¶ 11. We handed down our original decision, holding that — because the MTCA has within its provisions no discovery rule — Mrs. Caves's claims were time-barred, and any prior judicial findings of such a rule for claims under the MTCA were erroneous and overruled. Mrs. Caves filed a motion for rehearing, arguing primarily that this Court — having previously recognized a discovery rule for claims under the MTCA — should continue to apply a discovery rule on the basis of stare decisis.

¶ 12. Without dissent, we granted the motion for rehearing to examine the question. We ordered the parties (and invited amici) to submit supplemental briefs addressing, among others, the stare decisis question, and we took the rare step of setting oral argument on the motion for rehearing.

¶ 13. Now, after careful review of the record, the excellent briefs submitted by the parties and amici, and the excellent arguments presented by counsel, we are persuaded that, although the MTCA includes no discovery rule, we are nevertheless bound by the doctrine of stare decisis to apply a discovery rule to cases filed pursuant to the MTCA. We therefore withdraw our original opinion and substitute this opinion as the opinion of the Court.


¶ 14. A trial court "shall" grant summary judgment where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(c).

¶ 15. When reviewing an appeal of a trial court's grant of summary judgment, we apply "a de novo standard of review." Moss v. Batesville Casket Co., 935 So.2d 393, 398 (Miss.2006). Furthermore, "the application of a statute of limitations is a question of law," which we review de novo. Sarris v. Smith, 782 So.2d 721, 723 (Miss.2001).

¶ 16. The facts necessary to our disposition of this case are essentially undisputed. Instead, we are presented with significant unsettled legal issues related to application of the MTCA's statute of limitations. We must consider when, under the MTCA, the limitation period begins to run, whether it is subject to a discovery rule and, if so, what must be discovered to begin the limitation period. Upon settling these questions, we must then determine whether, under the facts of this case, the trial court's grant of summary judgment must be reversed.


When did the statute of limitations begin to run?

¶ 17. Because this is a wrongful-death case filed pursuant to the MTCA, we shall analyze the statute of limitations that applies to both MTCA and wrongful-death cases.

The statute of limitations in MTCA cases.

¶ 18. There is no dispute that, because both defendants fall within the definition of a political subdivision of the state, this case is governed by the provisions of the MTCA. Thus, we begin our analysis by setting forth the relevant statutory language:

(3) All actions brought under the provisions of this chapter shall be commenced within one (1) year next after the date of the tortious, wrongful or otherwise actionable conduct on which the liability phase of the action is based, and not after....

(4) [I]f any person entitled to bring any action under this chapter shall, at the time at which the cause of action accrued, be under the disability of infancy or unsoundness of mind, he may bring the action within the time allowed in this section after his disability shall be removed....

Miss.Code Ann. § 11-46-11 (Rev.2002).

¶ 19. The statute's language describes the beginning of the limitation period as the "date of the tortious, wrongful or otherwise actionable conduct on which the liability phase of the action is based." Id. The three terms, "tortious, wrongful, and otherwise actionable" are particularly troublesome because they are not synonymous.

¶ 20. Focusing only on the date of the "wrongful" conduct leads to the inescapable conclusion that the limitation period begins on the date of the acts which led to the lawsuit. Thus, we would look only to the date of Dr. Yarbrough's alleged negligent act, ignoring for purposes of the analysis the date of any resulting injuries or damages. But both Mrs. Caves and amici have argued that we must also consider the meaning of "tortious" and "actionable."

¶ 21. A tort is a "civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages." Black's Law Dictionary, 1247 (8th ed.2004). In order to mature into a tort, the negligent act must proximately produce...

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