Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Deadline for Medical Error Lawsuits Applies to Wrongful Death Claims

Image of a hand holding a pen and clipboard near a laptop. The person has a stethoscope around their neck.

Wrongful death lawsuits based on medical care must be filed within four years of the alleged medical error.

Image of a hand holding a pen and clipboard near a laptop. The person has a stethoscope around their neck.

Wrongful death lawsuits based on medical care must be filed within four years of the alleged medical error.

Wrongful death lawsuits based on faulty medical care must be filed within four years of the medical provider’s alleged error, just as any other lawsuit based on a medical claim, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed a Tenth District Court of Appeals decision that found wrongful death claims based on medical care are not subject to the time limit for filing other lawsuits based on medical claims. The Court majority found that state lawmakers defined the term “medical claim” to apply to all types of cases regarding medical care and that wrongful death based on medical care falls into the medical claim category.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated that Ohio adopted a four-year “statute of repose,” meaning a case must be filed within four years of the alleged medical error. Justice Fischer wrote the legislature “means what it says” when it stated a medical claim involves “any claim that is asserted in any civil action” against medical providers, including wrongful death claims.

The decision partly addresses a dispute between the family of a man taken to the Coshocton County Memorial Hospital for treatment after a car accident in 2003, the hospital, and the physicians who worked on his case. The Court remanded the case to the Tenth District to consider another legal issue raised by Machelle Everhart, the widow of Todd Everhart, who died in 2006.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Joseph T. Deters joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael P. Donnelly wrote that separate sections of the Ohio Revised Code apply separately to wrongful death and medical claims. Since there are no express provisions in the Revised Code stating that the medical claim statute of repose applies to wrongful death claims, the four-year limit does not apply to Everhart’s lawsuit, he wrote.

Justice Melody Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner also maintained that the law does not apply to wrongful death claims and that the Court wrongly accepted the case for review. She argued the Court should not have considered the case without the lower court first addressing Everhart’s argument that her case was filed within the four-year deadline.

Lung Cancer Death Led to Lawsuit
In December 2003, Todd Everhart was involved in an auto accident and transported to the Coshocton Hospital. At the hospital, doctors took X-rays of his chest. Everhart was not admitted at the Coshocton Hospital but was transferred by helicopter to Ohio State University Medical Center.

Dr. James Mendiola worked at Coshocton Hospital and read Everhart’s chest X-rays. He noted an area that might represent a “lung contusion.” Dr. Mohamed Hamza was assigned to be Everhart’s “backup physician,” which the hospital provided to emergency room patients who did not have primary care providers. The backup physicians act as a contact person that an emergency room patient could follow up with after discharge.

Hamza said he never received Everhart’s X-rays. Everhart was treated at Ohio State and recovered from his injuries. Nearly three years later, Everhart returned to Coshocton Hospital complaining of abdominal pain, blood in his urine, and a cough. Hospital personnel performed testing, including X-rays, which revealed a large mass in his right lung in the area where Mendiola reported a contusion. Tests established Everhart suffered from advanced lung cancer. He died two months later.

In January 2008, Everhart’s widow sued the hospital, Mendiola, Hamza, and others for medical malpractice and wrongful death. She argued that the hospital’s failure to follow up with the couple about the lung issue spotted in the 2003 X-ray led to her husband’s death.

Lengthy Legal Dispute Followed
Several years of litigation followed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court and the Tenth District. In 2017, the medical providers asked the trial court for permission to raise a new defense citing the statute of repose, and requested the court dismiss  the case based on the pleadings. The providers stated that the Supreme Court, in its 2016 Antoon v. Cleveland Clinic Found. decision, clarified how courts should impose the state of repose for medical claims, which is found in R.C. 2305.113(C). They maintained that because Everhart filed her lawsuit in 2008, more than four years after the X-ray detected the lung issue, she missed the deadline to sue the hospital and the doctors.

The trial court stayed the case for about 18 months because of Coshocton Hospital’s involvement in bankruptcy proceedings. In 2019, the trial court allowed the medical providers to argue their new defense. Everhart requested the right to amend her complaint to contest the new legal defense. She argued that R.C. 2305.113(C) did not apply to her claims, and even if it did, the actions of the medical providers continued far past the 2003 X-ray reading. She maintained her case was filed within the four-year deadline.

The trial court denied Everhart’s request and ruled in favor of the medical providers. Everhart appealed to the Tenth District, which reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that the four-year limit in R.C. 2305.113(C) did not apply to her wrongful-death claim. The Tenth District did not address her argument that she should have been allowed to amend her complaint to prove that her case was filed on time.

The medical providers appealed the Tenth District’s decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court determined that the Tenth District’s decision conflicted with rulings of other appeals courts that found that the four-year time limit applied to wrongful death claims. The Court accepted the appeals and also agreed to address the conflict among appeals courts.

Supreme Court Analyzed Time Limit Law
R.C. 2305.113(C)(1) states: “No action upon a medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim shall be commenced more than four years after the occurrence of the act or omission constituting the alleged basis of the medical, dental, optometric, or chiropractic claim.” Justice Fischer explained the law further broadly defines “medical claim” to mean “any claim that is asserted in any civil action against a physician” or a host of other medical providers “that arises out of the medical diagnosis, care, or treatment of any person.”

The four-year limit is a statute of repose, which differs from a statute of limitations, the opinion explained. A statute of limitations sets a time limit for when a case may be filed based on the date when the injury occurred or was discovered. A statute of repose sets a time limit for when a case may be filed based on when the accused acted. A statute of repose may prevent the filing of a lawsuit even before an injury that takes time to develop is discovered, the opinion explained.

Justice Fischer noted that the Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases about the difference between the statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases and wrongful death cases that involve medical injury. At that time, medical malpractice cases had a one-year statute of limitations, and wrongful death claims had a two-year statute of limitations. The Court rejected the claim that a wrongful death lawsuit based on a medical injury was subject to the one-year malpractice statute of limitations.

However, until today, the Court has not ruled on whether the four-year statute of repose that applies to medical claims also applies to wrongful death cases based on medical care.

The opinion stated that lawmakers did not limit the four-year statute of repose to just medical malpractice cases because they used the broader term “medical claim,” which includes wrongful death claims based on medical care.

The Supreme Court noted that the Tenth District examined R.C. Chapter 2125, which governs the filing of wrongful death lawsuits. In that chapter, the only statute of repose applies to cases involving death from faulty products. Since no provision in R.C. Chapter 2125 addressed medical claims, the appeals court ruled that wrongful deaths from medical injuries were not covered by R.C. 2305.113(C)(1). Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the Revised Code needs to be read in context, and the four-year deadline did not need to be in the wrongful death chapter to apply.

“The medical-claim statute of repose clearly applies to wrongful-death claims based on medical care, and the statutory wrongful-death chapter does absolutely nothing to remove those claims from the scope of the medical-claim statute of repose,” the Court concluded.

Law Does Not Include Wrongful Death Lawsuits, Dissent Maintained
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly detailed more than 200 years of legal decisions and changes to state law regarding the differences between medical malpractice and wrongful death cases. He wrote that the language in R.C. 2305.113(C)(1) has been relatively the same since 2002 and has included a few more additions to what constitutes a medical claim. However, in no version of the law does it state that wrongful death claims fall into the category of medical claims, he wrote.

State lawmakers established separate laws governing wrongful death claims, including a statute of repose only for product liability cases. He cited the Supreme Court’s 1960 Klema v. St. Elizabeth Hosp. of Youngstown decision, which found that since the wrongful death claim was established by statute, any provision impacting wrongful death claims must explicitly state that the law overrides the wrongful death statute. The four-year medical claim statute of repose only applies to medical malpractice claims because there is no explicit provision related to wrongful death lawsuits, he asserted.

“If the General Assembly wants the medical-malpractice statute of repose in R.C. 2305.113 to apply to wrongful-death causes of action, the General Assembly is free to add language saying as much,” he wrote.

Dissent Questioned Fairness of Trial Court Action
In her dissent, Justice Brunner questioned why the trial court allowed the medical providers to raise the statute of repose defense approximately 12 years after the lawsuit began but did not allow Everhart to respond to the new defense.

Justice Brunner noted that while the original X-ray was made in 2003, Todd Everhart returned to the hospital in 2006 complaining of a kidney stone. His 2003 X-ray film was still in his medical record, and no one told him of the issue that appeared on the X-ray or instructed him to follow up. Even though it was dismissed based on the medical providers’ late-brought defenses, Everhart’s wife had claimed in her original complaint that the medical providers’ failure to inform the family in 2006 of the X-ray was a continuing form of negligence that led to her husband’s death. She asserted that the visit took place two years before she filed her lawsuit and was within the four-year statute of repose. Justice Brunner stated that the Supreme Court should not consider her case until the lower courts determine if Everhart filed her lawsuit on time.

Justice Brunner also explained that medical malpractice and wrongful death claims are separate and distinct. She noted that in some cases, death from a medical injury or misdiagnosis occurs years after the mistake. Under today’s ruling, families might have to “macabrely” bring wrongful death cases against medical providers before their loved ones actually die, she wrote.

2022-0407 and 2022-0424. Everhart v. Coshocton Cty. Mem. Hosp., Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4670.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.