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RECENT DECISION ON DETERMINING WHETHER NEGLIGENCE IS GENERAL OR PROFESSIONAL FOR PURPOSES OF DETERMINING APPLICABLE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS.

JOHNSON V. OPEN DOOR COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTERS (2017) 17 C.D.O.S. 9016

In Johnson v. Open Door Community Health Centers (2017) 17 C.D.O.S. 9016, Division Four of the First Appellate District held an action by a patient who was injured when she tripped and fell over a scale in defendant’s medical facilities after her appointment had ended was one for general, not professional, negligence. Since there was no “direct” relationship between plaintiff’s injury and the rendition of medical care or treatment, her case was one of simple premises liability not subject to the MICRA one-year statute of limitations for professional negligence found at CCP section 340.5. The court’s concise opinion applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hosp. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 75 to reverse the trial court’s grant of defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds plaintiff did not comply with the one-year limitations period of MICRA-controlled professional negligence actions.

Plaintiff Johnson went to one of defendant’s clinics to review test results. Before her consultation with a nurse practitioner, she was weighed and had her vital signs taken. The appointment ended and she began to leave the clinic. As she left the treatment room, she tripped over the scale she had used previously. Plaintiff contended it had been moved during her consultation to a position that partially obstructed the path from the exam room to the hallway. She suffered serious injuries. Defendant maintained that since the injuries were sustained during “the rendering of professional services,” the MICRA one-year statute of limitations applied and moved for summary judgement because plaintiff’s complaint was untimely under CCP section 340.5. Though the trial court noted at the pre-Flores hearing on the MSJ that the “precise boundary between professional negligence and premises liability [was] currently unsettled,” it concluded the injury was due to professional negligence and granted the MSJ. This appeal followed.

The appellate court went into a brief discussion of the history of CCP 340.5 and related case law. It concluded the Flores decision applied to this action (and acknowledged Flores was published after the trial court’s ruling on the MSJ in Johnson). The court then distinguished the plaintiff in Flores from Ms. Johnson. Flores was injured after a hospital staffer “failed to competently carry out her doctor’s order to raise the rails on her bed.” (Ital. in original.) Here, Johnson was injured after her appointment had ended; the fact the scale had been moved had nothing to do with her “direct” care. Plaintiff did not “allege that Open Door’s failure to properly maintain the scale affected the quality of her medical treatment. She was weighed without incident.” Indeed, she alleged the “placement of the scale posed a tripping hazard, implicating Open Door’s duty to all users of its facility, including patients, employees, and other invitees, to maintain safe premises.” (Ital. in original.) Because “Johnson does not allege harm flowing from any aspect of her medical treatment, which had concluded when she tripped, the relationship between the manner of her medical treatment and her injury is not ‘direct.’”

Thus, Johnson’s injury was the result of ordinary premises liability and subject to the longer, two-year statute of limitations. The duty breached in this case was one owed to all clinic invitees, not just patients: “Because Johnson's injuries resulted from an alleged breach of defendant's obligation, ‘simply by virtue of operating facilities open to the public, to maintain [its] premises in a manner that preserves the well-being and safety of all users’ (Flores, supra, 63 Cal.4th at p. 87), the trial court erred in the applying of MICRA's one-year statute of limitations” and its decision was reversed.

This decision is important as it sheds light on appellate court interpretation of Flores, and contains an interesting discussion--and questioned the viability--of cases that preceded Flores on the issue of general versus professional negligence (e.g. Canister v. Emergency Ambulance Service, Inc., Gopaul v. Herrick Memorial Hospital, and Murillo v. Good Samaritan Hospital).

For more information on this and other recent decisions, please reach out to Reneé A. Richards.