ILNews

Court: Wrongful death claim timely filed

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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Indiana's professional statute of limitations does not trump the state's Wrongful Death Act's statute of limitations, ruled the Indiana Court of Appeals.

In The Estate of Martha O'Neal, by personal representative Therese Newkirk v. Bethlehem Woods Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, LLC, No. 90A05-0705-CV-271, the appellate court was asked to decided if the statute of limitations had expired prior to O'Neal's estate filing a wrongful death complaint against Bethlehem on Oct 22, 2003. O'Neal was admitted to Bethlehem for rehabilitation on Sept. 10, 2001, for a fractured femur. She was given a wheelchair that was too small for her, causing her surgical incision to tear. She also was left on a bedpan for six hours once, causing her to contract severe decubitus ulcers. O'Neal was transferred to a hospital Sept. 22; she died Nov. 6, 2001.

The trial court granted Bethlehem's motion for summary judgment after determining a two-year statute of limitations for the estate to bring a suit had expired. The last day O'Neal was at Bethlehem was Sept. 22, 2001, so the suit needed to be brought within two years from that date. The trial court did not specify which statute the two-year statute of limitations applied.

The Court of Appeals took it upon themselves to determine in the opinion that the professional services statute, Indiana Code 34-11-2-3, applied to Bethlehem based on its relationship to O'Neal. Designated evidence showed there was a health care provider-patient relationship between the two, wrote Judge Margret Robb. The statute of limitation under the professional services statute is "occurrence based," which means it accrues when the conduct that caused the damage occurs, and expires after two years.

However, the professional services statute does not control over Indiana's Wrongful Death Act, I.C. 34-23-1-1. Bethlehem argued the professional services statute of limitations controls the WDA based on the Indiana Supreme Court decision in Ellenwine v. Fairley, 846 N.E.2d 657 (Ind. 2006), in which the court concluded if an adult victim of medical malpractice dies within two years of the occurrence of the malpractice, the victim's personal representative has to file a wrongful death claim within the medical malpractice act's statute of limitations. Bethlehem also argued Ellenwine should apply because the language of the medical malpractice act is similar to that of the professional services statute.

Judge Robb wrote this court was not convinced that Ellenwine leads to the conclusion the professional services statute of limitation controls over the WDA's statute of limitation because it lacks the procedural requirements that accompany the medical malpractice act.

Because the professional services statute of limitations is less comprehensive than the medical malpractice act, the WDA's statute of limitation should be used, meaning the estate's wrongful death claim was timely filed.

The appellate court reverses the trial court grant of summary judgment and remands the case to the trial court.
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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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