In its opinion filed on May 5, 2016, the Supreme Court of California (“California Supreme Court”) had to decide whether alleged negligence in the use and maintenance of equipment needed to implement a physician’s order concerning medical treatment sounds in professional negligence rather than ordinary negligence. The issue was important to the plaintiff because California medical malpractice claims are governed by the special limitations period in section 340.5 rather than the two-year statute of limitations under section 335.1 for ordinary negligence claims.
California Statutes Of Limitations For Personal Injury Claims
A personal injury action generally must be filed within two years of the date on which the act or omission occurred, pursuant to Code Civ. Proc., § 335.1. However, a special statute of limitations applies to actions “for injury or death against a health care provider based upon such person’s alleged professional negligence” – professional negligence actions against health care providers must be brought within “three years after the date of injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury, whichever occurs first.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 340.5).
The Underlying Facts
In the case that the California Supreme Court was deciding, the plaintiff was a hospital patient who was injured when one of the rails on her hospital bed collapsed (the plaintiff was attempting to get up from her hospital bed when the latch on the bed rail failed and the rail collapsed, causing her to fall to the floor). The rail had been raised according to a physician’s order following a medical assessment of her condition.
The plaintiff sued the hospital, claiming that the defendant hospital had “failed to use reasonable care in maintaining [its] premises,” “failed to take reasonable precautions to discover and make safe a dangerous condition on the premises,” and “failed to give Plaintiff a reasonable and adequate warning of a dangerous condition so Plaintiff could have avoided foreseeable harm.”
The defendant hospital argued that the plaintiff’s complaint was governed by the section 340.5 statute of limitations for suits alleging professional negligence, that the plaintiff had discovered the injury when she fell out of her hospital bed, and that the plaintiff’s complaint was therefore untimely because it was filed more than one year after she fell.
The plaintiff argued that her claim did not arise from professional negligence. She acknowledged that a physician had made a “medical decision” to order that the rails on her bed be raised, following a “medical assessment” of her condition, but, the plaintiff argued, the rendition of professional services ended when the defendant medically assessed the plaintiff’s condition and medically determined to raise the sidewalls on her bed, and therefore the defendant hospital’s alleged negligent conduct was ordinary, and not professional, negligence, and thus subject to the ordinary two-year limitations period for personal injury actions (§ 335.1).
The California Supreme Court’s Decision
The California Supreme Court stated that the central point of dispute is whether negligence in the use or maintenance of hospital equipment or premises qualifies as professional negligence subject to the special statute of limitations in section 340.5. More specifically, the controversy centered on whether the negligent act or omission occurred “in the rendering of professional services.”
The California Supreme Court noted that a medical professional or other hospital staff member may commit a negligent act in rendering medical care, thereby causing a patient’s injury, even where no particular medical skills were required to complete the task at hand. The California Supreme Court stated that the text and purposes underlying section 340.5 required it to draw a distinction between the professional obligations of hospitals in the rendering of medical care to their patients and the obligations hospitals have, simply by virtue of operating facilities open to the public, to maintain their premises in a manner that preserves the well-being and safety of all users.
The California Supreme Court held that an injury resulting from a hospital’s breach of a generally applicable obligation to maintain its equipment and premises in a safe condition does not fall within section 340.5. Rather, the special statute of limitations for professional negligence actions against health care providers applies only to actions alleging injury suffered as a result of negligence in rendering the professional services that hospitals and others provide by virtue of being health care professionals: that is, the provision of medical care to patients – whether negligence in maintaining hospital equipment or premises qualifies as professional negligence depends on the nature of the relationship between the equipment or premises in question and the provision of medical care to the plaintiff.
The California Supreme Court explained that a hospital’s negligent failure to maintain equipment that is necessary or otherwise integrally related to the medical treatment and diagnosis of the patient implicates a duty that the hospital owes to a patient by virtue of being a health care provider. Thus, if the act or omission that led to the plaintiff’s injuries was negligence in the maintenance of equipment that, under the prevailing standard of care, was reasonably required to treat or accommodate a physical or mental condition of the patient, the plaintiff’s claim is one of professional negligence under section 340.5. But section 340.5 does not extend to negligence in the maintenance of equipment and premises that are merely convenient for, or incidental to, the provision of medical care to a patient.
In the case it was deciding, the California Supreme Court stated that the plaintiff alleged that the defendant hospital failed to properly implement the physician’s order, which was based on a medical assessment of her condition, that the rails on her bed be raised. Therefore, the plaintiff’s injuries resulted from the defendant hospital’s alleged negligence in the use or maintenance of equipment integrally related to her medical diagnosis and treatment. The California Supreme Court held that when a physician or other health care professional makes a judgment to order that a hospital bed’s rails be raised in order to accommodate a patient’s physical condition and the patient is injured as a result of the negligent use or maintenance of the rails, the negligence occurs “in the rendering of professional services” and therefore is professional negligence for purposes of section 340.5.
The California Supreme Court held that because the plaintiff’s injury resulted from alleged negligence in the use and maintenance of equipment needed to implement the physician’s order concerning her medical treatment, the plaintiff’s claim sounded in professional, rather than ordinary, negligence.
Source Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, S209836.
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