State ex rel. Morgantown Operating Co. v. Gaujot, No. 20-0940

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Writing for the CourtWALKER, Justice
Citation859 S.E.2d 358
Parties STATE of West Virginia EX REL. MORGANTOWN OPERATING COMPANY, LLC d/b/a Morgantown Health and Rehabilitation Center, Petitioner v. The Honorable Phillip D. GAUJOT, Judge of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County; and Kimberly Degler, as the duly Appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Jacqulin Lee Cowell, deceased, Respondents
Decision Date11 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-0940

859 S.E.2d 358

STATE of West Virginia EX REL. MORGANTOWN OPERATING COMPANY, LLC d/b/a Morgantown Health and Rehabilitation Center, Petitioner
v.
The Honorable Phillip D. GAUJOT, Judge of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County; and Kimberly Degler, as the duly Appointed Administratrix of the Estate of Jacqulin Lee Cowell, deceased, Respondents

No. 20-0940

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

Submitted: April 20, 2021
Filed: June 11, 2021


Anders W. Lindberg, Esq., Andrew P. Smith, Esq., Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, Huntington, West Virginia, Crystal Bombard-Cutright, Esq., Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, Morgantown, West Virginia, Dallas F. Kratzer III, Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, Columbus, Ohio, Counsel for Petitioner.

Dino S. Colombo, Esq., Kala L. Sowers, Esq., Colombo Law, Morgantown, West Virginia, Counsel for Respondent Kimberly Degler, Administratrix of the Estate of Jacqulin Lee Cowell, Deceased.

WALKER, Justice:

859 S.E.2d 361

Jacqulin Cowell was a resident of Morgantown Health and Rehabilitation Center (Morgantown Health), a nursing home, until she died in June 2018. More than one year later, her daughter and administratrix of her estate sued Morgantown Health alleging that a pattern of poor care, neglect, and abuse resulted in Ms. Cowell's death. Morgantown Health moved to dismiss the case based on the one-year statute of limitations in the Medical Professional Liability Act (MPLA), West Virginia Code § 55-7B-4(b) (2017). But the circuit court denied the motion in reliance on the two-year statute of limitations contained in the Wrongful Death Act, West Virginia Code § 55-7-6 (1992). Because we find no clear error of law in the circuit court's application of the Wrongful Death Act, we deny the writ of prohibition sought in this case by Morgantown Health.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Jacqulin Cowell moved into the nursing home operated by Petitioner Morgantown Operating Company, LLC d/b/a Morgantown Health and Rehabilitation Center on April 24, 2018. On June 17, 2018, Ms. Cowell was taken to the Emergency Department of Ruby Memorial Hospital because she developed an unstageable decubitus ulcer on her coccyx. Ms. Cowell's death a few days later on June 25, 2018 was attributed to sepsis and osteomyelitis. Ms. Cowell's daughter and administratrix of her estate, Kimberly Degler, retained counsel to pursue a wrongful death claim against Morgantown Health, and, in compliance with the pre-suit requirements of the MPLA, served a notice of claim and certificate of merit on Morgantown Health on January 29, 2020.1 After Morgantown Health did not respond, Ms. Degler filed her lawsuit on May 15, 2020, alleging that Ms. Cowell suffered a pattern of poor care, neglect, and abuse that resulted in her death.

Morgantown Health moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the one-year statute of limitations in West Virginia Code § 55-7B-4(b) had lapsed because Ms. Degler filed the notice of claim and screening certificate of merit one year and seven months after Ms. Cowell's death, and filed the complaint one year and ten months after her death. Ms. Degler responded that the two -year statute of limitations derived from the Wrongful Death Act, West Virginia Code § 55-7-6(d) applied.

The circuit court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that the MPLA and the Wrongful Death Act work in concert where there is a death that results from medical negligence. Specifically, the circuit court reasoned that the MPLA statute of limitations provision, § 55-7B-4(b), relates to causes of action against medical providers for personal injuries , but does not encompass causes of action for wrongful death against medical providers. The limitation on wrongful death actions, it found, is dictated by the statute of limitations provision found in the Wrongful Death Act, § 55-7-6. Morgantown Health filed this petition for a writ of prohibition, contending that the circuit court clearly erred in applying the Wrongful Death Act statute of limitations instead of that contained in the MPLA.

II. Standard of Review

West Virginia Code § 53-1-1 outlines the parameters of original jurisdiction in matters of prohibition: "[t]he writ of prohibition shall lie as a matter of right in all cases of usurpation and abuse of power, when the inferior court has not jurisdiction of the subject matter in controversy, or, having such jurisdiction, exceeds its legitimate powers." This Court explained the relevant considerations in issuing a discretionary writ of prohibition, when a circuit court is alleged to have exceeded its legitimate powers, in State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger :2

In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1) whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means, such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether
859 S.E.2d 362
the petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5) whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of law, should be given substantial weight.[3 ]

We have discussed that prohibition is an extraordinary remedy, "reserved for ‘really extraordinary causes.’ "4 Extraordinary writs do not issue to prevent a simple abuse of discretion.5 Rather, discretionary writs of prohibition serve the limited purpose of rectifying "substantial, clear-cut, legal errors plainly in contravention of a clear statutory, constitutional, or common law mandate."6 Even then, those issues may only be appropriate for prohibition when they "may be resolved independently of any disputed facts and only in cases where there is a high probability that the trial will be completely reversed if the error is not corrected in advance."7 With these considerations in mind, we turn to the parties’ arguments.

III. Analysis

Because the operative dates in this case are set and undisputed, the very narrow issue we examine is whether the MPLA, West Virginia Code § 55-7B-4(b)8 or the Wrongful Death Act, West Virginia Code § 55-7-6(d), supplies the statute of limitations for wrongful death causes of action that sound in medical negligence. Much of Morgantown Health's argument is based on a misconception that causes of action for death under the MPLA are not distinct from causes of action for personal injury. For that reason, we reiterate at the outset the distinctions between personal injury cases alleging medical negligence and wrongful death cases alleging medical negligence and some examples of claims that fall somewhere in between. For all their differences, all claims on this spectrum require adherence to the provisions of the MPLA insofar as they allege medical professional liability.

The claims can be grouped into various classes. One class of actions is for personal injury, where the patient—still living—files a claim in his or her own name for personal injuries allegedly caused by negligent medical care. A second, narrower class of actions is for personal injury, where the patient—still living—files a claim in his or her own name for personal injuries allegedly caused by negligent medical care, but dies before

859 S.E.2d 363

the completion of the action.9 This second type of action is revivable by the decedent's beneficiaries through the provisions of the Wrongful Death Act and may be maintained in addition to a wrongful death cause of action brought under § 55-7-5.10

A third class of actions is for personal injury filed by representatives of the decedent for personal injuries the decedent suffered that were allegedly caused by negligent medical care, but that medical care was not the cause of the decedent's death.11 Such personal injury claims survive the death of the decedent, again by virtue of the Wrongful Death Act. We explained the distinction between this type of personal injury action and wrongful death actions in Mack-Evans v. Hilltop Healthcare Center, Inc .:

[u]nder [ West Virginia Code § 55-7-8a ] a personal injury claim may be filed by a decedent's representative if the injury alleged did not result in the death of the decedent. That is, under this statute, a personal injury claim cannot be initiated by a decedent's representative if the injury complained of caused the decedent's death. In that situation, only a wrongful death claim may be brought.[12 ]

Mack-Evans thus brings us to a fourth class of actions, those filed by the representative of a decedent's estate alleging that negligent medical care caused the death of the decedent: wrongful death actions brought under West Virginia Code §...

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