HLD, v. 30, n. 7 (July 2002)
Sixth Circuit Holds Pro Se Prisoner's Medical Malpractice
Complaint Timely Filed When Given To Prison Authorities
Plaintiff Joe J. Richard, a federal prisoner, was diagnosed with
prostate cancer during his incarceration. He underwent prostate surgery at
Samaritan Hospital (hospital) and alleged that he suffered rectal and bladder
injury due to the surgeon's negligence in performing the surgery. He filed a
complaint against the surgeon and the hospital, which the trial court dismissed
as time-barred because it was stamped "filed" by the court clerk one day after
the statute of limitations expired.
The Sixth Circuit vacated the trial court's decision and held
that Richard's complaint was timely filed. The appeals court noted that in the
instant case, the state statute of limitations for medical malpractice applied,
and thus the action "must be brought within one year of the date on which the
cause of action accrues." The court stated that a medical malpractice action
"accrues at the time the injury is first discovered or in the exercise of
reasonable care should have been discovered." The court held that, because the
instant case involved a pro se prisoner, the holding set forth by the U.S.
Supreme Court in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988) should apply. The
court reiterated that in Houston, the Supreme Court held that the
"mailbox rule" applied; thus, a pro se incarcerated prisoner's appeal was
deemed filed when the notice of appeal was given to prison officials. The
appeals court held that the reasoning of Houston should apply in the
instant case because the rules governing the filing of civil complaints in
federal court are similar to the rules governing the filing of federal appeals.
Moreover, the court determined that pro se prisoners have no control over the
filing of their claims, and that prison officials may be motivated to willfully
obstruct the prisoner's claim. Thus, the court concluded that, after applying
these principles, Richard's claim was indeed timely filed when he gave the complaint
to prison authorities. Accordingly, the appeals court vacated the trial court's
dismissal of the complaint.
Richard v. Ray, No. 01-5665, 2002 WL 875651 (6th Cir. May
8, 2002) (4 pages).