The Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals has reversed a local court’s decision, and the families of five individuals who believe a respiratory therapist at Hedrick Medical Center intentionally killed their loved ones can advance their claims.
The Appeals Court filed its opinion on Tuesday which reversed a Livingston County Court’s judgment that the families filed their claims after the three-year statute of limitations had run out.
The Appeals Court’s opinion stated that wrongful death cause of action does not necessarily accrue at the time of death; rather, it accrues at the time that ‘a diligent plaintiff has knowledge of facts sufficient to put him on notice of an invasion of his legal rights.’ And while, under this definition, the accrual point in a wrongful death action in many — if not in most — cases will coincide with the time of death, here, it does not.”
Appellants in the case are Sally Boland (whose father died on Feb. 3, 2002), Sherri Lynn Harper (whose husband died on March 22, 2002), David Gann (whose father died on March 30, 2002), Jennirae Littrell (whose father died on April 15, 2002), and Helen Pittman (whose sister died on March 9, 2002).
The appellants allege that between January 2002 and May 2002, Hedrick experienced a number of suspicious deaths, each of which involved Jennifer Hall, a Hedrick employee at the time. The appellants allege that Hall administered an intentionally lethal overdose of succinylcholine and/or insulin and/or other medication that resulted in each of the five deaths and that respondents intentionally concealed Hall’s actions. Succinylcholine is a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the respiratory muscles and is normally used in a hospital to allow the insertion of a breathing tube into the throat of a patient who is still conscious. In higher doses, succinylcholine results in paralysis and the victim slowly suffocates.
Respondents in the case are three corporate defendants affiliated with Hedrick: Saint Luke’s Heath System, Inc., Saint Luke’s Hospital of Chillicothe, formerly known as Grand River Health System Corp., doing business as Hedrick Medical Center, and Community Health Group.
The appellants allege that although Hedrick’s doctors, nurses and administrators knew of the suspicious deaths, respondents worked systematically to conceal any indication of the spike in deaths as well as the suspicious nature of the deaths. Also attached to the pleadings was an affidavit of a Chillicothe physician who allegedly voiced concerns to hospital administration that someone on staff at Hedrick was attempting to kill and sometimes succeeding in killing patients. He said he was aware of nine suspicious deaths from Feb. 3, 2002, through May 17, 2002, all of which occurred while Hall was on duty.
The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred in granting respondents’ motion for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the lawsuits were time-barred by three-year statute of limitation in the Wrongful Death Act.
Page 2 of 2 - The appellants advanced a number of arguments in favor of tolling and/or lack of accrual of the statute of limitations, largely grounded in the assertion that respondents fraudulently concealed the causes of death and, therefore, the statute of limitations should be tolled, or alternatively, that the statute did not begin to accrue until the date the causes of death became evident or reasonably ascertainable. Respondents argued that the causes of action accrued when the patients died, all in 2002, and not when the alleged malfeasance was discovered or reasonably discoverable.
They have asserted allegations amounting to fraudulent concealment so as to delay the accrual of the statute of limitations.
“Appellants allege that respondents (1) threatened and coerced employees of Hedrick to conceal information concerning Hall’s actions, (2) failed to request autopsies so as to conceal the true causes of the patients’ deaths when they knew a number of deaths were suspicious (3) informed and/or instructed Hedrick employees to intentionally mislead the patients’ families that the causes of death were “natural instead of caused by Hall, (4) disbanded committees previously put in place by Hedrick to evaluate “codes” and determine preventative measures; (5) failed to inform pertinent individuals and relevant medical communities about Hall’s intentional and /or negligent battery of patients; (6) failed to monitor Hall when requested to do so by law enforcement (7) discarded and /or failed to preserve crucial material evidence contained in Hall’s locker pertaining to her intentional and/or negligent batteries; and (8) impeded the investigation of Hall by law enforcement.”
“Such fraudulent concealment of their actions, if true, would have prevented Appellants from ascertaining that they had a cause of action...” Appeals Judge Gary D. Witt wrote in the opinion. “Indeed, rather than ensuring that tortfeasors pay for their misdeeds, granting Respondent’s motion for judgment on the pleadings would suggest that tortfeasors can escape civil liability merely by concealing their misdeeds for mor than three years.”