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Wilkinson v. East Cooper Community Hospital, Inc.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 23, 2014

Vicki L. Wilkinson, Appellant,
v.
East Cooper Community Hospital, Inc., d/b/a East Cooper Regional Medical Center, Carolina Plastic Surgery Institute, P.A., and Thomas X. Hahm, M.D., Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2012-213464

Heard May 20, 2014

Appeal From Charleston County R. Markley Dennis, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

John S. Nichols, of Bluestein Nichols Thompson & Delgado, L.L.C., of Columbia, and Daniel Nathan Hughey, of Hughey Law Firm, L.L.C., of Mt. Pleasant, for Appellant.

Robert H. Hood, James Bernard Hood, Harry Cooper Wilson, III, and Deborah Harrison Sheffield, all of Hood Law Firm, L.L.C., of Charleston; Daniel Simmons McQueeney, Jr., Kathleen Fowler Monoc, and Lindsay Kathryn Smith-Yancey, all of Pratt-Thomas Walker, P.A., of Charleston, for Respondents.

Andrew A. Mathias, of Nexsen Pruet, L.L.C., of Greenville, for Amicus Curiae, South Carolina Hospital Association.

JUSTICE BEATTY

In this medical malpractice case, Vicki Wilkinson appeals the circuit court's order dismissing her civil action with prejudice based on the motions filed by East Cooper Community Hospital, Inc. ("East Cooper"), Carolina Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Institute, P.A. ("Carolina Aesthetic Plastic Surgery"), and Dr. Thomas Hahm (collectively "Respondents"). Wilkinson asserts the court erred in finding: (1) the statute of limitations was not tolled because she failed to file an expert witness affidavit contemporaneously with her Notice of Intent to File Suit ("NOI") pursuant to section 15-79-125 of the South Carolina Code;[1] and (2) she failed to file her Complaint within the applicable statute of limitations given she did not contemporaneously file an expert witness affidavit with the Complaint or within forty-five days thereafter in accordance with section 15-36-100(C).[2]

This appeal requires the Court to review the decision of the Court of Appeals in Ranucci v. Crain, 397 S.C. 168, 723 S.E.2d 242 (Ct. App. 2012) ("Ranucci I"), which held the pre-litigation filing requirement for a medical malpractice case found in section 15-79-125 incorporates only the parts of section 15-36-100 that relate to the preparation and content of an expert's affidavit. Recently, we reversed Ranucci I, holding that section 15-79-125(A) incorporates section 15-36-100 in its entirety. Ranucci v. Crain, Op. No. 27422 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed July 23, 2014) ("Ranucci II"). Therefore, we hold that Wilkinson could invoke section 15-36- 100(C)(1), which extended the time for filing the expert witness affidavit with her NOI and tolled the applicable statute of limitations. However, because the analysis in Ranucci II was confined to the dismissal of the pre-litigation NOI, it is not dispositive since the instant case involves the next procedural step in medical malpractice litigation. Specifically, we must analyze whether Wilkinson's failure to file an expert witness affidavit with her Complaint warranted the dismissal of her civil action. We hold the circuit court erred in dismissing Wilkinson's civil action as the expert affidavit filed with the NOI satisfied the statutory requirements of section 15-36-100 and, thus, it was not necessary to file a second expert affidavit in the same civil action. Accordingly, we reverse the circuit court's order and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. Factual / Procedural History

On September 4, 2008, Wilkinson was admitted to East Cooper to undergo reconstructive breast surgery performed by Dr. Hahm. Following the surgery, Wilkinson experienced complications throughout 2008 that required additional medical procedures.

On September 1, 2011, Wilkinson filed an NOI pursuant to section 15-79-125 against Respondents and several other defendants, which was designated as Case No. 2011-CP-10-6306.[3] Because the statute of limitations was due to expire within a short period of time, Wilkinson did not include an expert witness affidavit with the NOI, but stated that she would file one at a later date. On October 5, 2011, Wilkinson filed the affidavit of Dr. John D. Newkirk, a board certified plastic surgeon.

On January 25, 2012, five days after an unsuccessful attempt at pre-litigation mediation, Wilkinson filed a Complaint against the defendants named in the NOI, which was designated as Case No. 2012-CP-10-0558. Wilkinson did not file an expert affidavit with the Complaint nor did she reference the NOI or otherwise explain why she did not file an expert affidavit with the Complaint.

Respondents separately answered and moved to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure on the ground the statute of limitations had expired. Citing Ranucci I, East Cooper asserted the NOI did not toll the three-year statute of limitations[4] because Wilkinson failed to contemporaneously file an expert affidavit with the NOI pursuant to section 15-79-125. Therefore, East Cooper argued that Wilkinson's Complaint, which was filed four months after the expiration of the statute of limitations, should be dismissed. Alternatively, even if the statute of limitations did not expire on September 4, 2011, East Cooper claimed Wilkinson's failure to file an expert affidavit with her Complaint or within forty-five days thereafter violated section 15-36-100 and warranted dismissal. In a separate memorandum in support of their motion to dismiss, Respondents Carolina Aesthetic Plastic Surgery and Dr. Hahm reiterated the arguments raised by East Cooper.

Wilkinson filed a memorandum in opposition to Respondents' motions. Because Respondents engaged in pre-litigation mediation and did not move to dismiss the NOI during the pre-litigation proceedings, Wilkinson maintained Respondents waived any argument regarding her NOI and the expiration of the statute of limitations. Additionally, Wilkinson asserted the failure to file an expert affidavit with her Complaint did not ...


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