Davenport v. Lee

Decision Date11 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. 01-456.,01-456.
Citation348 Ark. 148,72 S.W.3d 85
PartiesRon and Ramona DAVENPORT, as the Administrators of the Estate of Linda Kay Moore, Deceased, or, in the Alternative, Ron and Ramona Davenport, Individually and as the Heirs at Law of Linda Kay Moore, Deceased, on Behalf of Themselves and All Other Heirs at Law of the Deceased, or All Who are Entitled to Legal Redress for the Death of Linda Kay Moore, Deceased v. Tyrone LEE, M.D.; Conway Regional Medical Center; Craig Cummins, M.D.; and James Throneberry, M.D.
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

Charles Phillip Boyd, Jr., and Christopher D. Anderson, Little Rock, for appellants.

Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP, by: Patricia Sievers Harris and Jane Weisenfels Duke; Anderson, Murphy & Hopkins, LLP, by: Overton S. Anderson and Scott D. Provencher; and Armstrong Allen, PLLC, by: Ken Cook and Jeffrey L. Singleton, Little Rock, for appellees.

DONALD L. CORBIN, Justice.

This appeal is before us on a petition for review from a decision by the Arkansas Court of Appeals concluding that a non-attorney personal representative is not authorized to file a pro se complaint in a wrongful-death action, but that such a defect did not render the complaint a nullity. See Davenport v. Lee, 73 Ark.App. 247, 40 S.W.3d 346 (2001). We granted the petition, pursuant to Ark. Sup.Ct. R. 1-2(e)(iii). We affirm the trial court's order.

This appeal stems from events surrounding the death of Linda Kay Moore. On February 11, 1997, Moore went to the emergency room at Conway Regional Medical Center ("CRMC") seeking treatment for pneumonia. She was admitted to the hospital and subsequently scheduled for surgery. On February 15, Moore was intubated by hospital staff in preparation for her surgery, but died minutes after the intubation. Surviving Moore were her sister, Appellant Ramona Davenport, and three adult children.

Following the death of Moore, the Faulkner County Probate Court appointed Ramona and her husband, Appellant Ron Davenport, as administrators of Moore's estate. On February 10, 1999, Appellants filed a pro se complaint for wrongful death alleging negligence on the part of Appellees Dr. Tyrone Lee, Conway Regional Medical Center, Dr. Craig Cummins, Dr. Greg Lewis, and Dr. James Throneberry.1 Thereafter, on May 28, 1999, the Boyd Law Firm filed an entry of appearance, as well as a pleading entitled "Addendum to Complaint." This addendum purported to change the case styling to reflect the addition of Dr. Throneberry's first name. It was the first pleading signed by an attorney in this action.

Dr. Cummins filed an answer denying Appellants' allegations and asserting that the complaint should be dismissed pursuant to Ark. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and because the statute of limitations had run on the cause of action. Likewise, Dr. Throneberry denied all allegations and averred that the complaint should be dismissed because it was a nullity, as it had been signed by the estate's administrators who were non-lawyers and that any further claims were time barred. Dr. Lee and CRMC initially filed answers denying Appellants' allegations, but later filed amended answers also asserting the affirmative defense of limitations.

On June 21, 1999, Dr. Throneberry filed a motion to dismiss that was subsequently adopted by each of the other Appellees. In support of his motion, Dr. Throneberry argued that the filing of the complaint by non-lawyers resulted in a nullity, and thus, no valid complaint was filed prior to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations under the Arkansas Medical Malpractice Act. Appellants responded that as administrators they were authorized to file a complaint on behalf of Moore's estate. Moreover, they argued that under Ark. R. Civ. P. 17, they were allowed to cure any defect in the original complaint through inclusion or ratification by the real party in interest.

Following a hearing on Appellees' motions, the trial court determined that Appellants, as administrators of the estate, could not file a valid complaint for wrongful death where neither of them was an attorney. The trial court also determined that Appellants were not acting on their own behalf, but rather, as representatives of all the statutory beneficiaries. Finally, the trial court ruled that subsequent pleadings filed by attorneys could not relate back to the original complaint under the circumstances in the present case. On November 24, 1999, the trial court entered an order dismissing with prejudice Appellants' cause of action.

At the conclusion of the hearing on November 3, 1999, Appellants requested time to file a motion for reconsideration. Several letters followed, each requesting additional time to file the motion. The motion and supporting brief were not filed, however, until November 26, 1999. Therein, Appellants argued that Appellees had not suffered any surprise or prejudice by the filing of the original complaint and that Appellants were actually represented by counsel at the time the case commenced. According to Appellants, the case commenced when the summons and complaint were served upon Appellees. On November 17, 1999, prior to the filing of the motion for reconsideration, Appellants also filed a fifth amended complaint, alleging for the first time that CRMC had fraudulently concealed part of Moore's medical records. Appellees moved to strike the amended complaint arguing that the trial court correctly ruled that Appellants were prohibited from amending the original complaint. The trial court subsequently entered orders granting Appellees' motions to strike and denying Appellants' motion for reconsideration.

Appellants filed a timely notice of appeal, alleging seven points of error. The court of appeals determined that Appellants, as administrators, were not authorized to file a complaint on behalf of the statutory beneficiaries. According to the court of appeals, however, such an irregularity amounted to an amendable defect, not a nullity. Appellees then petitioned this court for review. When we grant review following a decision by the court of appeals, we review the case as though it had been originally filed in this court. See Regions Bank & Trust v. Stone County Skilled Nursing Facil., Inc., 345 Ark. 555, 49 S.W.3d 107 (2001); Freeman v. Con-Agra Frozen Foods, 344 Ark. 296, 40 S.W.3d 760 (2001). Thus, we review the trial court's judgment, not that of the court of appeals.

In reviewing a trial court's decision on a motion to dismiss, this court must treat the facts alleged in the complaint as true and view them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Goff v. Harold Ives Trucking Co., Inc., 342 Ark. 143, 27 S.W.3d 387 (2000); Arkansas Tech Univ. v. Link, 341 Ark. 495, 17 S.W.3d 809 (2000). In testing the sufficiency of a complaint on a motion to dismiss, all reasonable inferences must be resolved in favor of the complaint, and all pleadings are to be liberally construed. Id. With this standard in mind, we now turn to Appellants' arguments on appeal.

I. No Waiver of Limitations Defense

As an initial matter, Appellants argue that the trial court erred in refusing to deny the motions to dismiss filed by Drs. Cummins and Lee and CRMC. Appellants base this argument on the contention that those parties waived their right to assert the defense of limitations when they failed to raise it in their initial responsive pleadings. We disagree.

Arkansas has long recognized the common-defense doctrine, holding that the answer of one defendant inures to the benefit of the other co-defendants. See Sutter v. Payne, 337 Ark. 330, 989 S.W.2d 887 (1999); Richardson v. Rodgers, 334 Ark. 606, 976 S.W.2d 941 (1998); Arnold Fireworks Display, Inc. v. Schmidt, 307 Ark. 316, 820 S.W.2d 444 (1991); Bruton v. Gregory, 8 Ark. 177 (1847). In determining whether the common-defense doctrine is applicable, this court focuses on whether the answer of the non-defaulting defendant states a defense that is common to both defendants, because then "a successful plea ... operates as a discharge to all the defendants, but it is otherwise where the plea goes to the personal discharge of the party interposing it." Richardson, 334 Ark. at 612, 976 S.W.2d at 944-45 (quoting Southland Mobile Home Corp. v. Winders, 262 Ark. 693, 694, 561 S.W.2d 280, 280-81 (1978)). In other words, the doctrine is applicable where the asserted defense would discharge all of the defendants.

Here, the affirmative defense at issue is the running of the statute of limitations. Each of the claims raised against Appellees is subject to the two-year statute of limitations set forth in the Arkansas Medical Malpractice Act. Thus, the defense of one Appellee that Appellants failed to timely file their action is common to the remaining Appellees and would serve to discharge each of them from this action. Accordingly, Dr. Throneberry's answer inured to the benefit of the other Appellees, thus preserving their rights to assert the defense of limitations.

II. Complaint was a Nullity

We next turn to Appellants' argument that the trial court erred in ruling that their original complaint was a nullity. According to Appellants, the absence of counsel is a procedural defect that does not interfere with the subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court, and thus, the complaint is simply defective, not void ab initio. Appellees counter that the filing of a pro se complaint on behalf of statutory beneficiaries constituted the unauthorized practice of law, and thus, rendered the complaint a nullity. Appellees further argue that because there was no valid complaint filed prior to the expiration of the two-year limitations period, Appellants were time-barred from bringing suit against them. We agree with Appellees.

a. Commencement of the Action

Before discussing the issue of the unauthorized practice of law, we must first address some separate issues raised by Appellants that are directly related to the question of whether the pro se complaint was a...

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