Divided 7th Circuit upholds judgment against mom of injured child

A mother whose son was injured in a “traumatic” birth experience cannot proceed with her tort claims against the federal government because her claims were untimely, a divided panel of the 7th Circuit court of Appeals has ruled. A dissenting judge, however, warned of setting an “extraordinarily harsh” standard.

The case of P.W., a minor, by Dominque Woodson, his mother and guardian, et al. v. United States of America, 20-1142, dates back to May 2013, when mother Dominque Woodson began receiving prenatal treatment from Dr. Keith Ramsey at NorthShore Health Centers. NorthShore is a federally qualified health center that receives federal funding and grant money from the United States Public Health Service, meaning any claims brought against the clinic’s employees are covered against malpractice under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Though Woodson and Ramsey had agreed to deliver the child via C-section, Ramsey decided to deliver the baby vaginally. According to Woodson, the birth on Dec. 7, 2013, was traumatic, with the child, P.W., having to be “yanked out.”

Once P.W. was born, Woodson noticed his left arm “just sagged down to his side.” Ramsey said that issue “may get better,” but it did not, leading Woodson to sue Ramsey, NorthShore and the hospital where she gave birth.

Woodson hired lawyer Walter Sandoval and in December 2014 filed a proposed complaint with the Indiana Department of Insurance, which remains pending. One year later, counsel for NorthShore informed Sandoval that the clinic was federally funded and Ramsey was a federal employee, leading to the filing of administrative tort claims with the Department of Health and Human Services. Those claims were denied.

Then in October 2017, the plaintiffs filed the instant complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, raising negligence claims against the United States and the hospital. The U.S. moved to dismiss or for summary judgment, the latter of which was granted on the grounds that the claims were untimely.

A majority of a 7th Circuit panel affirmed the grant of summary judgment Friday. The plaintiffs’ claims were presented to HHS on Feb. 19, 2016, so the majority determined those claims would be untimely under the two-year statute of limitations if they accrued before Feb. 19, 2014.

“Contrary to her suggestion, Ms. Woodson’s retention of Sandoval on May 30, 2014, has no automatic significance, as the mere hiring of a lawyer is not a triggering event. Particularly here, where Ms. Woodson did not require Sandoval’s review of the medical records to understand the traumatic delivery as a potential cause of P.W.’s injury (nor does she argue otherwise), the date that Ms. Woodson retained Sandoval is of little importance to our analysis,” Judge Amy St. Eve wrote, joined by Chief Judge Diane Sykes. “Instead, we apply the ‘discovery rule’ and ask when Ms. Woodson discovered or should have discovered the cause of her injury. Applying this rule, we agree with the district court that Plaintiffs’ claims accrued shortly after P.W. was born.”

The majority likened Woodson’s case to Blanche v. United States, 811 F.3d 953 (7th Cir. 2016), where a mother’s cause of action accrued shortly after the birth of her child, who weighed more than 11 pounds, got stuck in the birth canal and went home in a splint. Woodson likewise “had enough information shortly after she gave birth to P.W. to prompt her to inquire whether the manner of delivery caused P.W.’s injury.”

While a traumatic birth alone does not automatically trigger the statute of limitations, there were “other circumstances” in this case — the deviation from the birth plan, P.W.’s traumatic delivery and his visibly injured arm — that would “prompt a reasonable person to investigate the potential cause of the injury,” St. Eve wrote.

“Plaintiffs further argue that even if Ms. Woodson had knowledge of the injury and suspected that Dr. Ramsey may have contributed to the injury on the day she gave birth, she could not have known at that time that Dr. Ramsey was a government employee,” St. Eve wrote. The majority rejected that argument under Arteaga v. United States, 711 F.3d 828 (7th Cir. 2013), which held that “when a plaintiff is ‘armed with such knowledge’ of injury and a likely cause of that injury, ‘the prospective plaintiff should be able to discover within the statutory limitations period the rest of the facts needed for drafting a complaint that will withstand a motion to dismiss.’

“… Plaintiffs did not present their claims to HHS until February 19, 2016, more than two years after the claims accrued,” the majority held. “Plaintiffs’ claims are therefore untimely. This is a sympathetic case, but the district court did not err.”

Woodson’s claims also cannot survive under the “savings provision” of the Westfall Act, the majority held, because the claims filed with the Indiana Department of Insurance were never dismissed. Finally, the majority held that the plaintiffs’ claims do not qualify for either equitable estoppel or equitable tolling.

Judge David Hamilton, however, would have reversed the grant of summary judgment, writing in dissent that “(t)he factual uncertainty in this case is evident in the majority’s vague holding that plaintiffs’ claims accrued ‘shortly after’ P.W.’s birth.”

“A reasonable trier of fact could find that plaintiffs’ medical malpractice claims did not accrue within scarcely ten weeks after P.W.’s birth,” Hamilton wrote. “More generally, we should not apply the statute of limitations so that a poor medical outcome immediately puts a patient on ‘inquiry notice,’ meaning that she should quickly consult a lawyer to investigate a possible claim of malpractice.

“The majority denies it is adopting this rule, but the denial is not consistent with the majority’s logic,” he continued. “I respectfully dissent.”

The majority “applies the inquiry notice standard in an extraordinarily harsh way, and on summary judgment, no less,” Hamilton wrote. “… For jaded lawyers and federal judges, perhaps the need for investigation seems obvious — especially with the benefit of hindsight. Yet that is not the standard. We need to focus on the reasonable patient, in the situation she faced just after giving birth. And we need to keep in mind the trust at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship.”

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