Offerdahl v. University of Minnesota Hospitals and Clinics

Citation426 N.W.2d 425
Decision Date22 July 1988
Docket NumberNo. C4-87-297,C4-87-297
PartiesRosemary Sherlock OFFERDAHL, et al., Respondents, v. UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA HOSPITALS AND CLINICS, petitioners, Appellants.
CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota (US)

Syllabus by the Court

1. Where the patient sought treatment from the clinic as a whole rather than an individual physician, the treatment by the clinic as a whole is relevant for purposes of determining when treatment terminated and the statute of limitations began to run.

2. Patient's claim for medical malpractice against the hospital and clinic alleging negligent failure to disclose risks associated with use of an intrauterine device was barred by the two-year statute of limitations set forth in Minn.Stat. Sec. 541.07(1) (1986), as the claim involved a single act of negligence from which the patient incurred damage more than two years prior to commencement of the lawsuit.

David C. Hutchinson, St. Paul, for petitioners, appellants.

Reed K. MacKenzie, Minneapolis, for respondents.

Heard, considered and decided by the court en banc.

POPOVICH, Justice.

Rosemary Sherlock Offerdahl sued the University of Minnesota Hospitals and Clinics (hereinafter "University"), alleging the University committed medical malpractice by failing to disclose risks associated with use of an intrauterine device (IUD) and for damages allegedly incurred as a result of insertion of the IUD. The district court granted the University's motion for summary judgment, holding Offerdahl's claim was barred under the applicable statute of limitations as more than two years had passed between the insertion of the IUD and commencement of this suit. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the University's treatment of Offerdahl terminated, raising a jury question as to when treatment ceased. Offerdahl v. University of Minnesota Hospitals and Clinics, 411 N.W.2d 20 (Minn.App.1987). Because we find Offerdahl's claim is based upon a single act of negligence and the damage was sustained more than two years prior to the commencement of this action, we reverse.


In 1972, Rosemary Offerdahl began using a Dalkon Shield intrauterine device (IUD) which was inserted by a physician at a community health service not affiliated with the University. Offerdahl attended the University of Minnesota as a student in 1973 and 1974. In 1973, she was hospitalized at the University Hospital for abdominal pain associated with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). The Dalkon Shield IUD was not removed at that time.

On June 28, 1977, Offerdahl visited the University Hospital complaining of abdominal pain and excessive bleeding during menstruation and the Dalkon Shield IUD was removed. After the removal, Offerdahl inquired about alternative methods of birth control. She returned to the University Hospital on August 9, 1977, and consented to the insertion of a Copper-7 IUD by Dr. Patricia Felton, a resident physician at the University. Offerdahl alleges Felton recommended the Copper-7, assuring her it was safe and would not cause the problems she had experienced with the Dalkon Shield. Offerdahl was instructed to return to the University in one year for a checkup and Pap smear.

Offerdahl continued to experience abdominal pain after the insertion of the Copper-7. On May 9, 1978, Offerdahl went to the University Hospital and asked to have the IUD removed. Because pregnancy was suspected, the IUD was not removed. Offerdahl was asked to return in one week for removal of the IUD if the results of the pregnancy test were negative. Although Offerdahl was not pregnant, she did not return to the University until January 28, 1979, when she was experiencing severe abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding and discharge. The Copper-7 IUD was removed and Offerdahl was admitted to the University hospital for treatment.

Offerdahl was diagnosed as having chronic PID. As a result she has undergone a number of surgeries, including the removal of her left Fallopian tube and ovary at the University in 1981. The parties dispute when treatment for PID ended at the University. Following the 1981 surgery Offerdahl received fertility counseling from Dr. Theodore Nagel, a physician at the University Hospital. In February, 1984, Offerdahl gave birth to a healthy baby.

Meanwhile, in 1982 Offerdahl commenced a lawsuit against A.H. Robins Company, Inc., for damages sustained as a result of using the Dalkon Shield IUD. This litigation was settled in 1984. She then commenced this medical malpractice action against the University on June 19, 1984. Offerdahl alleges the University was negligent because it failed to disclose to her the risks associated with the insertion of the Copper-7, including the increased risk of contracting or aggravating PID and associated complications. She further alleges the University was negligent in failing to advise her the Copper-7 manufacturer recommended against inserting the Copper-7 under the circumstances that existed when the IUD was inserted in Offerdahl.


The following issues are raised on appeal:

1. Whether Offerdahl's claim against the University is barred because more than two years had passed between treatment by Dr. Felton and the commencement of the lawsuit.

2. Whether Offerdahl's claim is barred under the "single act exception" to the "termination of treatment rule" applied to medical malpractice.


On an appeal from summary judgment, the role of the reviewing court is to review the record for the purpose of answering two questions: (1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact to be determined, and (2) whether the trial court erred in its application of the law. Minneapolis, St.P. & S.Ste. M.R.R. v. St. Paul Mercury Indem. Co., 268 Minn. 390, 406, 129 N.W.2d 777, 788 (1964). When reviewing a summary judgment, we "must take a view of the evidence most favorable to the one against whom the motion was granted." Abdallah Inc. v. Martin, 242 Minn. 416, 424, 65 N.W.2d 641, 646 (1954).

1. Claims for malpractice against physicians and hospitals must be commenced within two years of the time the cause of action accrues. Minn.Stat. Secs. 541.01, 541.07(1) (1986). In Schmitt v. Esser, 178 Minn. 82, 226 N.W. 196 (1929), we set forth the general rule pertaining to accrual of claims for medical malpractice. In Schmitt, the plaintiff sued for medical malpractice, alleging the defendant physician failed to properly treat and heal a broken ankle. The physician treated the ankle from March 5, 1926, to July 1, 1926, and plaintiff commenced suit on June 5, 1928. This court rejected the defendant's contention that the two-year statute of limitations barred plaintiff's claim, holding "the treatment and employment should be considered as a whole, and, if there occurred therein malpractice the statute of limitations begins to run when the treatment ceases." 178 Minn. at 86, 226 N.W. at 197.

The circumstances surrounding Offerdahl's treatment raise a unique issue regarding the proper application of the "termination of treatment rule" set forth in Schmitt to a claim by a patient who received care as a patient of the clinic as a whole rather than an individual physician. The University asserts Offerdahl's claim against it is barred under the statute because more than two years passed between treatment by Dr. Felton, the resident who allegedly inserted the Copper-7 IUD without advising Offerdahl of the risks, and the commencement of the lawsuit. The University points out there is no evidence Dr. Felton rendered medical care or treatment to Offerdahl subsequent to the removal of the Copper-7 IUD in 1979. The University maintains any liability on its part is vicarious liability for negligence committed by Dr. Felton. Because Offerdahl's suit would be barred against Dr. Felton, the University argues the claim is barred against it as well.

In support of its position, the University cites Grondahl v. Bulluck, 318 N.W.2d 240 (Minn.1982). In Grondahl, the plaintiff sued the defendant, Dr. Bulluck, and his clinic for failing to properly diagnose a malfunction of plaintiff's balance system. Id. at 242. The court remanded for determination when Dr. Bulluck's treatment of plaintiff terminated, noting that if the jury found the claims against Dr. Bulluck barred, the claims against the clinic would be barred as well, despite the fact that plaintiff had been treated by another doctor at the clinic within two years of the lawsuit. Id. at 244.

Grondahl is distinguishable from this matter. Unlike the defendant physician in Grondahl, Dr. Felton was not Offerdahl's regular treating physician at the time the Copper-7 IUD was inserted. Offerdahl testified in her deposition that she received treatment from several different University residents, apparently assigned at random, while receiving outpatient care at the University. In a very real sense Offerdahl hired the clinic and not an individual physician to treat or cure her problems.

We have not previously addressed the issue of applicability of the termination of treatment rule to a claim of a patient who received care from a clinic as a whole rather than an individual physician. In Watkins v. Fromm, 108 A.D.2d 233, 488 N.Y.S.2d 768 (App.Div.1985), the New York court held the termination of treatment doctrine tolls the statute of limitations for a medical malpractice action against physicians alleged to have committed malpractice while members of a medical group, but who have left group practice, provided the patient was treated as a group patient and the subsequent treatment was for the original condition or complications resulting therefrom. In so holding, the New York court noted the patient was "a patient of the group, rather than of any particular doctor, and had every right to believe that the group, as such, was, in effect, his physician, and that he could continue to be treated by that physician until either he or that physician...

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