Ling v. Stillwell

Decision Date15 August 2000
Docket NumberNo. 49A02-0002-CV-119.,49A02-0002-CV-119.
Citation732 N.E.2d 1270
PartiesJohn LING, Jr., and Board of Trustees of Vermillion County Hospital, Appellants-Defendants, v. James STILLWELL, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Doris R. Stillwell, Appellee-Plaintiff, v. Orville Lynn Majors, Vermillion County, Indiana, Dr. John Albrecht, Dr. Franklin Swaim, Dr. Joel Elias and Dr. Steven Waltz, Respondents.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

Robert G. Weddle, Matthew W. Conner, Charles R. Whybrew, Tabbert, Hahn, Earnest & Weddle, LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana, Attorneys for Appellants.

Stephen L. Williams, Max E. Goodwin, Mann Law Firm, Eric Frey, Frey Law Firm, Joe Anderson, John C. Nichols, Anderson & Nichols, Terre Haute, Indiana, Attorneys for Appellee.


ROBB, Judge

Case Summary

John Ling, Jr. and the Board of Trustees of Vermillion County Hospital (collectively referred to as the "Hospital")1 appeal from the trial court's denial of its motion for summary judgment. We affirm.


The Hospital raises three issues for our review, which we restate as:

1. Whether the trial court properly denied the Hospital's motion for summary judgment on the issue of the statute of limitations;

2. Whether the trial court properly considered Stillwell's designated evidence in ruling on the Hospital's motion for summary judgment; and

3. Whether the trial court improperly relied on the doctrine of collateral estoppel in ruling on the Hospital's motion for summary judgment.

Facts and Procedural History2

On August 1, 1994, Doris Stillwell died while a patient of the Intensive Care Unit at Vermillion County Hospital. While a patient at the hospital, Doris was under the care of nurse Orville Lynn Majors. Because of the rise in the mortality rate at the hospital during Majors' employment there, a criminal investigation of Majors was started in March of 1995. The investigation of the epidemic level mortality rate at the hospital's intensive care unit ultimately ended in Majors' conviction for murder.

When Doris passed away, James Stillwell, her son, was unaware of the increase in the death rate at the hospital. The local newspaper reported on the investigation of the suspicious deaths in the summer of 1995 but no mention of Doris' death was included in the article nor was there any indication her death was a part of an investigation. Similarly, when Stillwell's attorney obtained a copy of the Survey of the Indiana State Department of Health in the fall of 1995, no specific reference to Doris or her death was made. This survey only revealed information pertaining to the death rate at the hospital as well as the hospital's questionable practices with respect to death charts of individuals, without mentioning specific patients, who died at the hospital. Stillwell learned of the preliminary results of the police investigation in the fall of 1996. Although some of these events occurred prior to the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations, they were tenuous at best and gave Stillwell no reason to suspect that his mother's death had been involved in Majors' criminal activity.

It was not until July 1997, that Stillwell became aware that the circumstances surrounding Doris' death had been part of the investigation, but documentation to identify victims of Major's misconduct was not available until December of 1997 when the police completed their investigation and filed charges against Majors.

After becoming aware in July 1997 of the fact that his mother's death was involved with the investigation, Stillwell promptly filed a proposed complaint on September 5, 1997, with the Indiana Department of Insurance seeking to recover damages because of Doris' death. Stillwell filed his complaint before the police finished their investigation and filed a probable cause affidavit in December of 1997 naming the numbers of people who died while Majors was working, and specifically naming six victims who the police had probable cause to believe Majors had murdered. Although Doris was not named as one of those six, this information provided Stillwell with concrete information that Majors was, indeed, involved in misconduct relating to many patients and confirmed his suspicions that his mother was also a victim.

The Hospital filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that Stillwell's complaint was not filed within the appropriate limitations period and therefore there was no genuine issue of material fact precluding entry of summary judgment in its favor.3 The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, and the Hospital properly instituted this Appellate Rule 4(B)(6) interlocutory appeal.

Additional facts will be provided as necessary.

Discussion and Decision
I. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

The purpose of summary judgment is to end litigation where no factual dispute exists and which may be determined as a matter of law. Choung v. Iemma, 708 N.E.2d 7, 11 (Ind.Ct.App.1999). On review of a trial court's decision to deny summary judgment, our standard of review is well settled. We apply the same standard of review as the trial court: we must decide whether there is a genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fawcett v. Gooch, 708 N.E.2d 908, 909 (Ind.Ct.App.1999).

Summary judgment is appropriate only if "the evidence sanctioned by Ind. Trial Rule 56(C) shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party deserves judgment as a matter of law." Id. (citing Blake v. Calumet Constr. Corp., 674 N.E.2d 167, 169 (Ind. 1996)). The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of making a prima facie showing that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Choung, 708 N.E.2d at 11. Once these two requirements are met by the moving party, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to show the existence of a genuine issue by setting forth specifically designated facts. Id. Any doubts as to any facts or inferences to be drawn therefrom will be resolved in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

II. Statute of Limitations

Indiana Code section 34-18-7-1(b) states that

[a] claim, whether in contract, or tort, may not be brought against a health care provider based upon professional services or health care that was provided or that should have been provided unless the claim is filed within two (2) years after the date of the alleged act, omission, or neglect. . . .

The Hospital alleges that the statute of limitations for Stillwell's claim began to run on the day that Doris died because the statute is occurrence-based. By the Hospital's interpretation of the statute, the limitations period ran on August 1, 1996, two years after the death of Doris, and Stillwell's complaint, filed September 5, 1997, was not timely. Thus, the Hospital claims that its motion for summary judgment should have been granted based on the statute of limitations.

The Hospital concedes that previous cases, including Martin v. Richey, 711 N.E.2d 1273 (Ind.1999), and Harris v. Raymond, 715 N.E.2d 388 (Ind.1999), provide factual scenarios where the statute providing an occurrence-based limitations period was unconstitutional as applied to those plaintiffs. The Hospital contends, however, that those cases involved diseases which had latency periods which made it impossible for the plaintiffs to discover their conditions during the limitations period. Here, the Hospital argues, Stillwell was aware of a potential claim within the limitations period but nonetheless failed to file a claim within the appropriate two-year period and thus, the occurrence-based statute of limitations is not unconstitutional as applied to Stillwell.

Stillwell claims that under the circumstances of this case, the application of the occurrence-based two-year statute of limitations would unconstitutionally deprive him of a medical malpractice claim for Doris' death. We agree.

In Martin, our supreme court held that the statute of limitations is unconstitutional, as applied, when "it requires a plaintiff to file a claim before [he or] she is able to discover the alleged malpractice and [his or] her resulting injury, and, therefore, it imposes an impossible condition on [his or] her access to the courts and pursuit of [his or] her tort remedy." 711 N.E.2d at 1279. Thus, a plaintiff cannot be foreclosed from bringing a malpractice action when the plaintiff could not reasonably be expected to discover the alleged malpractice and injury within the two-year statutory period given the nature of the malpractice or medical condition. Id. at 1282. Although technically aware of Doris' ultimate injury, her death, on August 1, 1994, Stillwell had no way of knowing that it was the possible result of malpractice until much later. When Doris passed away, Stillwell was told that she had died of natural causes; her death certificate listed the cause of death as " `Cardiac Arrythmia' [sic] and `Coronary Heart Disease.' " Brief of Appellee at 10-11. No mention was made of irregularities in the death of his mother or other patients at the hospital and no independent knowledge of the irregularities was available to Stillwell at this time. The events which surrounded the investigation prior to the expiration of the limitations period, including newspaper articles and the survey which Stillwell himself did not see, did not put Stillwell on notice such that he knew or should have known that Majors was involved with his mother's death. Further, the results of the preliminary investigation were not available until the fall of 1996, after the expiration of the limitations period. Once Stillwell had the suspicion that Doris' death was possibly the result of inappropriate medical treatment and negligence, Stillwell pursued his claim by consulting an attorney who was already involved in other litigation concerning Majors.

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