Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Martin v. Naik, 300 P.3d 625 (Kan. 2013).
This case addresses the following issue:
When does the statute of limitations begin to run in a wrongful death action?
This case explored the issue of when the statute of limitations (period of limitation before you can no longer bring up a lawsuit) begins to run in a wrongful death action. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that a lawsuit for wrongful death begins on the date of the death unless information regarding the fact of death or the wrongful act that caused the death was concealed, altered, falsified, inaccurate, or misrepresented. Id. at 626.
On March 31, 2004, the decedent (plaintiff’s husband), who was diabetic, was admitted to the hospital. Id. at 627. On April 8, 2004, a nurse who was employed by the hospital administered insulin to the decedent and the plaintiff (decedent’s wife) observed the nurse having extreme difficulty. Id. Shortly after, the decedent’s condition became more serious and he suffered irreversible brain damage and other injuries the following day. Id. That same day, the plaintiff had the decedent transferred to Shawnee Mission Medical Center (SMMC) and it was alleged that the previous hospital negligently delayed the transfer. Id. While at SMMC, a doctor told the plaintiff that the previous hospital’s staff allowed the decedent to go into a diabetic coma and essentially killed him. Id. SMMC was able to stabilize the decedent but he ended up dying on October 25, 2004. Id.
On October 25, 2006, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendants (doctor and hospital) in which she raised a wrongful death claim based on alleged medical malpractice. Id. Both defendants filed motions for summary judgment (judgment in their favor without a trial) in which they argued that the plaintiff’s wrongful death claim was prevented by the 2-year limitation period provided by the Kansas legislature. Id. As a result, the district court granted the defendant’s motion and stated that the statute of limitations began on April 7, 2004. Id. However, the plaintiff appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and held that the claim was not barred by the 2-year limitation because the statute of limitations did not begin to run until the death of the decedent on October 25, 2004. Id. at 627-28. The defendants appealed the decision and the Supreme Court of Kansas decided the case. Id. at 628.
One of the core arguments at issue between the decedent’s wife (plaintiff) and the doctor/hospital (defendants) was when exactly the statute of limitations began to run in the wrongful death of the decedent. Id. at 626. The plaintiff argued that the statute of limitations should not have begun to run until her husband’s death on October 24. 2004. Id. at 629. On the other hand, the defendant’s argued that the statute of limitations should have begun to run on either April 7, 2004 (the date of the first act of alleged negligence) or on April 8, 2004 (when it was obvious that the decedent had been injured by an act of negligence.) Id. at 630. Both sides presented the court with cases that supported their arguments. Id.
All of the cases that the plaintiff used to support her argument asserted that the wrongful death action was for the exclusive benefit of the heirs (those who inherit property from decedent who dies without a will), and allowed them to recover damages after death for such things as loss of support, companionship, and mental anguish. Id. Additionally, according to one of the cited cases, the court recognized two points at which a wrongful death action could be begin: (1) the time of death and (2) after death when the fact of injury became reasonably obvious. Id. at 631. Furthermore, the case stated that the fact of death should be a starting point for review and the limitations period should start on the date of death unless the information from which the fact of death or negligence could be determined was concealed, altered, falsified, inaccurate, or misrepresented. Id.
The defendants used two cases to prove that the statute of limitations should have begun prior to the death of the decedent. Id. at 632. However, the court found the first case’s decision was incorrect and the second case’s decision did not support the defendant’s argument. Id. at 633.
After reviewing the cases the defendant used to support their argument, the court held that the 2-year statute of limitations that governed a wrongful death action should start on the date of death unless the information from which the fact of death or negligence could be determined was either concealed, altered, falsified, inaccurate, or misrepresented. Id. Therefore, the plaintiff’s medical malpractice claim was not time barred at the time of her husband’s death. Id.