Supreme Court Rules Medical Malpractice Claim Against Williamson Medical Center Was Filed Too Late

May 9, 2013

In a unanimous opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a medical malpractice claim brought by a Williamson County couple against a county hospital must be dismissed because it was filed too late.

Walton and Phyllis Cunningham brought their son, Phillip, to Williamson Medical Center on November 14, 2008, for treatment of abdominal discomfort. Phillip died on November 25, 2008, following respiratory complications.

On November 14 and 16, 2009, the Cunninghams provided Williamson Medical Center with notice of their intent to file a medical malpractice claim against the hospital. Tennessee law provides that plaintiffs in medical malpractice actions must notify potential defendants of an impending lawsuit at least sixty days prior to filing suit. When the sixty-day notice is provided, the deadline for filing a medical malpractice claim is extended by 120 days, according to the medical malpractice statute.

However, Williamson Medical Center is subject to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), which requires that suits against governmental entities be filed within one year of the incident. The Cunninghams filed suit against Williamson Medical Center in the Circuit Court for Williamson County on March 12, 2010, approximately fifteen months after Phillip’s death.

Williamson Medical Center filed a motion to dismiss the Cunninghams’ lawsuit on the grounds that the one-year deadline for filing a claim against it had passed as of November 25, 2009. The Cunninghams argued that the sixty-day notice requirement set out in the medical malpractice statute extended the deadline for medical malpractice claims by 120 days and that the same extension should apply to their suit against Williamson Medical Center in spite of its status as a governmental entity. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss the claim against Williamson Medical Center, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

In its ruling today, the Supreme Court determined that the 120-day extension provided in medical malpractice cases does not apply to the Cunninghams’ claim because it was also brought under the GTLA. The Court explained that when a law is in conflict with the requirements of the GTLA, the legislature must clearly state its intent to apply the conflicting law to the GTLA. The medical malpractice statute at issue in the Cunninghams’ case did not clearly show that the legislature intended to apply the 120-day extension to GTLA cases. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the Cunninghams’ case must be dismissed because their suit was filed after the GTLA’s one-year deadline had passed.

To read the Cunningham v. Williams County Hospital Opinion, authored by Justice Janice M. Holder, visit the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.