Iowa Supreme Court Applies Statute of Repose to “Failure to Inform” Cases

Amazing! Iowa Supreme Court Applies Statute of Repose to “Failure to Inform” Cases

Information about Iowa Supreme Court Applies Statute of Repose to “Failure to Inform” Cases

Phil Puccio

in the Downing versus GrossmanIn an April 2022 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that medical malpractice plaintiffs may not use allegations of fraudulent concealment to exercise equitable relief to prevent the application of Section 614.1(9) of the Iowa Code, a rest period , when the alleged fraudulent concealment ends the “heart” of a plaintiff’s claim.

Understand downing, it is important to keep in mind the similarities and differences between statutes of limitations and rest periods. The statute of limitations and cool-down periods have a common purpose – taken together, they construct a permissible time frame in which a lawsuit can be filed. But the two types of laws derive from different legal principles. As the Iowa Supreme Court explained, a key difference between a grace period and a statute of limitations is the identity of the party that each law is intended to govern. Especially where “[a] The statute of limitations regulates how long a plaintiff must bring a lawsuit after it arises. . . how long regulates a rest period a potential suspect liable for his actions.” ID. at 518 (emphasis added).

In Iowa, a lawsuit generally arises when a potential plaintiff is injured. This point in time also marks the beginning of a rest period. However, sometimes the parties are unaware of their injuries at the time they occur. In these circumstances, the statute of limitations — the clock that marks the length of time a plaintiff must bring an action — does not start ticking until the plaintiff “discovers, or should reasonably have discovered, that he has been injured.” ID.

But what happens when one party is slow to learn of an injury? in the downing, a plaintiff claimed she underwent a series of treatments starting in 2004, mainly for abdominal problems, where her caregivers recognized a cancerous mass on her kidney but did not inform her of it. In 2016, she suffered a shoulder injury and underwent a CT scan at a separate healthcare provider. As the downing Opinion Details: “Again, Berry was not informed of the mass during her treatment, but a nurse who discharged Berry happened to mention the kidney mass to her. Berry claims this is the first time anyone has informed her of the mass on her kidney.” ID. Later that month, the plaintiff was diagnosed with metastatic renal cell carcinoma. She underwent surgery and various treatments over the next three years, but died of her cancer in 2019.

Before she died in April 2018, she sued doctors and the hospital where she received her initial treatment for abdominal problems. The defendants, who had not treated the plaintiff since 2009, sought summary judgment under Iowa Code Section 614.1(9), which provides that “in no event shall any action be brought more than six years from the date of the act or omission or the event claimed in the action as causing the injury or death. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that the defendants should be fairly barred from claiming the rest period – a positive defense – because the defendants concealed the existence of their condition, thereby preventing them from pursuing their plea recognize until it is too late.

The Supreme Court first noted: “[e]The lawful legal forfeiture does not presuppose that the defendant has harmed the plaintiff, but that the defendant – after having harmed the plaintiff – has also concealed the existence of a cause of action.” ID. at 520. From there, the Court found that cases involving alleged concealment fall into two classes based on the nature of the act.

The first class includes scenarios in which the alleged concealment constitutes behavior separate from the underlying act giving rise to liability. To use an example cited by the Supreme Court, in Christy v. muulli, a doctor caused a brain hemorrhage while operating on a patient and later misled the patient’s wife as to the location of the brain hemorrhage – ostensibly to suggest that the bleeding had nothing to do with the procedure. 692 NW2d 694, 698-99 (Iowa 2005). In these circumstances, the act giving rise to liability (the procedure that caused the bleeding) was to be distinguished from the doctor’s subsequent testimony, which was intended to prevent the patient from realizing the cause of the complaint.

The second class includes scenarios in which a failure to disclose is intrinsically related to the source of liability. The Supreme Court cited Van Overbeke vs. Youberg, a case where a doctor failed to inform a pregnant and Rh-negative patient that she may need a specific drug to aid in childbirth. 540 NW2d 273, 275 (Iowa 1995). There the failure of the doctor to inform himself even served as an act creating liability as the failure prevented the patient from making informed decisions regarding her health care.

In either case, the Iowa Code § 614.1(9) quiescent period would begin to run when the act giving rise to liability occurs: in Christy—time of improper procedure; and in Van Overbeke, at the time of non-disclosure. In the first case-Christy– There was a clear demarcation between the act giving rise to liability and the doctor’s attempt at concealment. Given this pattern of facts, the plaintiff could likely attempt to use a fair legal defense to prevent the defendant from arguing that the case is statute-barred.

But in the second case –Van Overbeke— the act giving rise to liability itself involves alleged concealment. Failure to provide information can certainly serve as the basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit. And the elements of a claim alleging a failure to provide information overlap with the elements a plaintiff must present in order to obtain relief against a defendant based on the accused’s alleged fraudulent concealment. Therefore, if you analyze this second class of cases below Christy‘s Rule, you can imagine a scenario where a cause of failure to notify arises and the plaintiff uses the defendant’s alleged failure to notify and fraudulent concealment – the core issue of the case – to prevent a defendant from asserting a confidentiality defense.

But under another precedent from Iowa, cases where an act of concealment is “at the heart” of a professional negligence claim are analyzed in a separate framework — one in which the alleged act of concealment cannot be used to prevent a retirement settlement forever. The Iowa Supreme Court analyzed this downing under this second class of cases:

[The plaintiff] essentially asserts a substantive claim of fraudulent concealment based on a duty of Dr. Grossmann is reluctant to disclose the coincidental results of her CT scan. But she made her claim more than six years after Dr. Grossmann had failed to make this disclosure. Allowing her claim to be made would effectively erode the dormant period for claims of failure to notify a patient. To circumvent confidentiality, Berry must identify an act of concealment that is independent of the duty to disclose CT scan results. Berry is unable to rely on fraudulent concealment to prevent the defendants from using the six-year lull as a defense against Berry’s claims.

downing is a reminder that defense counsel should take care to carefully consider the plaintiff’s allegations of the act giving rise to liability at the heart of the case. Plaintiffs can certainly use elaborate pleading to evade arguments that their claims are statute-barred. But below downing and related Iowa precedent, the courts are reviewing the allegations “at the core of the lawsuit” to determine whether the plaintiff may use equitable legal protection based on alleged fraudulent concealment to prevent a defendant from asserting a period of defense . Continue below downingit is quite possible for a rest period to expire before the start of a statute of limitations.

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