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Fraudulent concealment tolls Wrongful Death Act’s limitations period

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The Wrongful Death Act’s two-year limitations period is tolled by fraudulent concealment, and plaintiffs whose wrongful death claims have been fraudulently concealed beyond the act’s limitations period have a full two years after the concealment is or should be discovered with reasonable diligence to file their claims, the Indiana Court of Appeals held in a case of first impression.

Venita Hargis was a resident of The Good Samaritan Home, a nursing home in Evansville, in November 2006 when the staff told her daughter Julia Luker that Hargis fell and had to go to the hospital. The explanation was plausible because Hargis suffered from “mini-strokes.” She died Nov. 26, 2006, from a head injury from the alleged fall. In November 2009, a former employee of the nursing home told another daughter, Peggy McGee, that Hargis had been attacked by another resident, which caused her fall and head injury that led to her death.

An estate was opened for Hargis in December 2010 and the plaintiffs filed their complaint under the Wrongful Death Act Oct. 27, 2011. They alleged Good Samaritan fraudulently concealed the true cause of Hargis’ death. Good Samaritan fought the suit, arguing the plaintiffs waited more than two years after Hargis’ death to file the complaint.

The trial court concluded that the WDA’s two-year deadline had been equitably tolled but that the plaintiffs failed to file their complaint within a reasonable time. The judge granted summary judgment for Good Samaritan.

In Virginia E. Alldredge and Julia A. Luker, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Venita Hargis v. The Good Samaritan Home, Inc., 82A01-1206-CT-249, the appellate court agreed with the trial court’s reasoning that the deadline was tolled, but found fraudulent concealment allows plaintiffs a full two years after the concealment is discovered to file their wrongful death claims.

“We see no reason to impose a shorter period of time in the wrongful death context when the reason for the plaintiff’s failure to discover the action within the WDA’s two-year limitations period is the fault of the defendant rather than simply the result of a medical condition’s long latency period,” Judge John Baker wrote. “In short, it is abhorrent to think that we would treat people who have been intentionally defrauded regarding their loved one’s deaths worse than others … where the defendant’s misfeasance has been undiscovered merely on account of nature’s own time frame.”

A decedent’s personal representative shall be allowed to bring the action within the lesser of two years from the date of the discovery of the cause of the action or two years from the discovery of facts that, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should lead to the discovery of the wrongful act or omission that resulted in the death.

In coming to its conclusion, the judges avoided holding that the WDA’s two-year statute of limitations period is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs – as they argued – under the Indiana or U.S. Constitutions.

The case is remanded for continuation of the litigation.

 

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