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Rhode Island Supreme Court Finds No Reasonable Diligence Required Under Wrongful Death Statute Of Limitations

 
 

HLD, v. 33, n. 7 (July 2005)

Rhode Island Supreme Court Finds No Reasonable Diligence Required Under Wrongful Death Statute Of Limitations

The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the exercise of reasonable diligence is not a prerequisite to tolling the wrongful death statute as it is under the medical malpractice statute. Claiming that the result is based on a "highly unusual fact pattern," the high court found that a widower had no reason to suspect or know of any possible tortious acts at the hospital where his wife died.

Julia Walsh O'Sullivan was taken by ambulance to Newport Hospital after complaining of nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite, and persistent fever on February 8, 1999. She was discharged that same day after taking some diagnostic tests and being rehydrated with a saline solution. Mrs. O'Sullivan returned the following day, February 9, with worsening symptoms, but was discharged again that same day after being rehydrated. On February 11, 1999, she returned and was admitted as an inpatient, with a diagnosis of severe bilateral pneumonia and severe neutropenia. She was then transferred to Rhode Island Hospital on February 12, 1999, where she spent three weeks before passing away on March 1, 1999.

Thomas Noel O'Sullivan, her husband, requested medical records from Rhode Island Hospital on April 1, 1999, although he did not receive anything until June 8, 1999, when he received an "abstract" of the medical records. He then received a complete set on June 28, 1999

Having initially filed an action against Newport Hospital, Mr. O'Sullivan did not file a wrongful death action against Rhode Island Hospital until June 6, 2002 (more than three years after the date of his wife's death, but less than three years after receiving the abstract of medical records). Rhode Island Hospital argued that the action was time-barred under the three-year statute of limitations set forth in Rhode Island's wrongful death statute. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Rhode Island Hospital. Mr. O'Sullivan appealed.

The issue before the court was whether Rhode Island's wrongful death statute allowed the limitations period to toll until at least June 8, 1999, when Mr. Sullivan received the abstracts. The statute said that "[w]ith respect to any death caused by any wrongful act, neglect or default which is not known at the time of death" an action is to "be commenced within three (3) years of the time that the wrongful act, neglect or default is discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been discovered."

Rhode Island Hospital argued that the tolling provision only applied when the injury was "latent and potentially undiscoverable," i.e. when a plaintiff exercising "reasonable diligence" at the time of injury is unable to discover the "wrongful act, neglect or default." The court rejected this, pointing out the contrasting language set forth in the statute of limitations governing Rhode Island's medical malpractice cases, which reads: "In respect to those injuries or damages . . . which could not in the exercise of reasonable diligence be discoverable at the time of occurrence of the incident which gave rise to the action, suit shall be commenced within three (3) years of the time that the acts or acts of malpractice should, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, have been discovered."

The court distinguished the two statutes, finding that under the malpractice statute "there must be a finding that the plaintiff exercise[d] reasonable diligence at the time the injury occurred, yet failed to discover a wrongful act on the part of the defendant." The court then recognized that reasonable diligence is not a prerequisite to tolling under the wrongful death statute. All that is required under this statute is a finding that the death was "caused by any wrongful act, neglect or default which is not known at the time of death." The statute is then tolled until the date on which the "wrongful act, neglect or default is discovered or, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been discovered," i.e. "when the 'wrongful act, neglect or default' 'is not known at the time of death,' it is the actual (or imputed) discovery of the 'wrongful act, neglect or default' that triggers the running of the statute."

Finally, the court noted that even though Mr. O'Sullivan knew or had reasonable cause to suspect that his wife had been the victim of a wrongful death at the time of her death, he had no knowledge or reason to know of possible tortious acts by Rhode Island Hospital, nor did he have any reason to suspect another person or entity besides Newport Hospital.

"Above all, it is important to be mindful of how entirely rational it was for plaintiff to believe that the fault (if any) that resulted in the death of Mrs. O'Sullivan must have been attributable [to] the Newport Hospital defendants. On three separate occasions over a four-day period, Mrs. O'Sullivan was taken to the hospital. On the first two of those occasions, she was not even admitted; but, after each visit, her symptoms became increasingly worse," the court observed. "The logical initial focus of the rational person would, it seems to us, have been on the local hospital to which plaintiff's decedent was taken on several occasions before she was eventually referred to the larger teaching hospital in Providence. There was no reason for plaintiff to initially believe that he should inquire beyond the local hospital to which Mrs. O'Sullivan had thrice been transported," said the court.

O'Sullivan v. Rhode Island Hosp., No. 2003-70 (R.I. May 26, 2005). To read the case, go to http://www.courts.state.ri.us/supreme/pdf-files/03-70.pdf

 

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