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Justices reverse, reinstate wrongful death claim against nursing home

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The estate of a woman who died in a nursing home after an attack by another resident may pursue a wrongful death claim, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. The family was initially told the woman suffered a fall but learned of the attack years later.
Justices reversed a trial court grant of summary judgment for the nursing home in Virginia E. Alldredge and Julia A. Luker, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Venita Hargis v. The Good Samaritan Home, Inc., 82S01-1305-CT-363. Vernita Hargis lived at Good Samaritan Home in Evansville in November 2006 when a daughter received a call from a nurse saying that Hargis was ill after suffering a fall. Hargis was hospitalized later that day and died a few days later from the head injury she sustained.

A nurse told one of Hargis’ daughters almost three years later that Hargis had been attacked by another resident. In December 2010, the family sued, and the nursing home was granted summary judgment in Vanderburgh Superior Court on its argument that the complaint was time-barred, and that even if fraudulent concealment occurred, that could not extend the statutory two-year filing period.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, giving plaintiffs an opportunity to prove common-law fraud, but holding that the Fraudulent Concealment statute could not apply because it was enacted after the Wrongful Death Act.

Though an issue of first impression, Justice Mark Massa wrote for the court, “Based upon our review of the historical and precedential records, we conclude that if a plaintiff makes the necessary factual showing, the Fraudulent Concealment Statute may apply to toll the Wrongful Death Act’s two-year filing period. In so holding, we break very little new ground."  

“Public policy considerations further bolster our conclusion. Were we to hold otherwise, we would be incentivizing fraud and thus thwarting the obvious purpose of the Fraudulent Concealment Statute,” Massa wrote. “And our decision today is consistent with that of courts in other jurisdictions, which have routinely found fraud may toll a statutory filing period even when it is a condition precedent to the existence of the claim rather than a statute of limitation.”

The opinion traces statutes, common law and caselaw dating back more than 200 years to find numerous examples tolling in similar Indiana cases. The opinion opens with the final opinion written by Indiana’s fifth justice, Stephen C. Stevens – Raymond v. Simonson, an 1835 ruling –  in which he laments “the labyrinth of difficulties, discriminations, technicalities and shades that have gathered around the statute of limitations.”

In a footnote, Massa notes a biography of Stevens says after he resigned from the bench he returned to private practice. “(T)hirty-three years later, after losing his fortune in a bad railroad investment, he died destitute in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane.”

 

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