Legal News

Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (recent decision on general vs. professional negligence for purposes of applying statute of limitations).

Last week, Division Three of the Second Appellate District issued its decision in Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital (Feb. 27, 2013) 13 C.D.O.S. 2163, a troubling decision for healthcare defendants and their counsel. The Flores court analyzed the question of whether a plaintiff's case sounds in general v. professional negligence for purposes of determining the applicable statute of limitations. The court held that plaintiff's allegations of having been injured as a result of collapsing bedrails while a patient at defendant hospital stated a claim for ordinary negligence and premises liability rather than professional negligence. In so holding, the court reversed the trial court's sustaining of defendant's demurrer without leave to amend on the ground that plaintiff's claim was not timely filed. Because the appellate court held plaintiff's claim was one of general negligence, the longer, two-year statute of limitations set out in CCP section 335.1 applied, not the one-year from date of discovery statute of limitations for professional negligence embodied in CCP section 340.5.

Plaintiff Catherine Flores filed her complaint just three days shy of the two year anniversary of the date she claims she injured her knee and elbow at defendant hospital when her bedrail collapsed and she fell to the floor. Plaintiff claimed the collapsing of the bedrail did not involve the rendering of professional services and that it "was only after the rendition of all professional services (i.e., the assessment of Plaintiff's condition and medical decision to employ siderails), and after the siderails had been negligently latched, that those siderails collapsed, injuring Plaintiff." Defendant hospital demurred. The trial court held the action was time-barred by the shorter statute of limitations for medical negligence because "[e]nsuring bedrails, to the extent they are needed by a particular patient, are properly raised or lowered and properly latched is a duty that arises from the professional services being rendered. Plaintiff's claim is governed by section 340.5." Flores appealed the order of dismissal after defendant hospital's demurrer was sustained without leave to amend.

The appellate court went through a fairly comprehensive discussion of the case law--both pre- and post-MICRA--that addressed fact patterns similar to the one at bar. It then held that, based on its survey of case law and statutory analysis, plaintiff's action was actually one for ordinary, not professional, negligence and therefore was timely filed. The court stated the "essential issue" before it was "whether Flores' fall from a hospital bed constituted professional negligence or ordinary negligence. In its opinion, the collapsing bedrail was an "equipment failure" completely unrelated to the rendition of professional services: "We conclude the instant fact situation, consisting of a collapsed bed rail, does not constitute professional negligence. The test under section 340.5 is whether " ' "the negligent act occurred in the rendering of services for which the health care provider is licensed." ' " The court explained that not every tortious act inflicted on a "patient...amounts to professional negligence."

In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals patently rejected the dictum in Murillo v. Good Samaritan Hospital, a post-MICRA bedrail decision (involving the alleged negligent failure to raise the bedrails) in which the court notes that because a fundamental purpose of a hospital is to provide a "safe environment within which diagnosis, treatment , and recovery can be carried out," an unsafe environment, by extension, constituted a breach of the hospital's professional duty of care to a patient, and therefore constituted professional, rather than general negligence.

The distinction by the Flores court that a collapsed bedrail constitutes an equipment failure rather than a negligent rendition of professional services and therefore sounds in general rather than professional negligence, is a bad precedent. If it stands, it could amount to an erosion of MICRA. This is not a situation in which a person is injured by a collapsing chair in a hospital waiting room or in the hospital parking lot, but rather, one in which an in-patient is allegedly injured by the negligent use or maintenance of a piece of hospital equipment integral to the patient's care--a hospital bed. However, the court specifically stated plaintiff's claim sounded in "ordinary negligence because the negligence did not occur in the rendering of professional services," but rather, was a result of the hospital's failure to use reasonable care in the maintenance of its premises and equipment "which were open to Plaintiff and the public."