SC Supreme Court: Med-Mal Indemnity Action Barred by Statute of Repose

A recent ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court regarding a medical malpractice indemnity action found such actions must adhere to the applicable statute of repose.
What this means is hospitals or other health care providers who settle (or lose) patient claims for medical malpractice compensation can’t turn around and pursue indemnity/recompense from a previously unnamed defendant without any sort of time bar.

This case doesn’t directly impact the patient, who received his compensation for damages years ago. However, it could prompt medical malpractice defendants in the future to more vigorously assert liability of unnamed third parties prior to a settlement/verdict. If complaints aren’t timely amended to include those defendants in some instances, that could jeopardize plaintiff’s opportunity to collect total damages.

According to court records in Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare System v. So. Carolina Medical Malpractice Liability Joint Underwriting Association, two doctors were working at a hospital as independent contractor physicians in the emergency department when a patient arrived complaining of chest pain. Both doctors evaluated patient and diagnosed him as suffering from reflex. He was discharged.

In reality, the main had suffered a heart attack, a fact he only learned when he sought further medical evaluation elsewhere a few days later. In 1999, plaintiff and his wife filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital and one of those doctors. They did not name the second doctor as a defendant.

Five years later, hospital settled with the couple out-of-court for an undisclosed sum. Three years after that action, the hospital filed an equitable indemnification action against the second doctor and his medical malpractice insurance company (hereafter, defendants). Defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds the medical malpractice statute of repose had already expired, barring the claim. The circuit court agreed, and granted summary judgment to defendants. Appellate court affirmed.

The case was then appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Our Spartanburg medical malpractice attorneys know that while plaintiffs have three years in which to file a lawsuit for wrongdoing, the General Assembly enacted S.C. Code Ann. 15-3-545 to set a six-year statue of repose for medical malpractice actions. This is the absolute time limit beyond which no liability exists and is not tolled for any reason because to do so would “upset the economic balance struck by the legislative body.”

The question here was whether the hospital’s claim for equitable indemnification is subject to that six-year statute of repose. The court, in a divided opinion, ruled that it can be.

In this case, patient walked into the aforementioned emergency room 17 years ago. There was no stated allegation of medical malpractice against the second doctor within the statute of repose. The court found that to allow the second doctor to be subject to liability for medical malpractice at this point would be fundamentally at odds with not only the language of the law, but it’s clearly-stated purpose.

Contact our South Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare System v. So. Carolina Medical Malpractice Liability Joint Underwriting Association, Jan. 21, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Sadler v. PacifiCare – Actual Injury Established in Medical Error Case, Jan. 22, 2015, Spartanburg Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog

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