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Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare System, LP v. South Carolina Medical Malpractice Liability Joint Underwriting Ass'n

Supreme Court of South Carolina

January 21, 2015

Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare System, LP d/b/a Providence Hospital, Petitioner,
v.
The South Carolina Medical Malpractice Liability Joint Underwriting Association and Michael P. Taillon, Respondents

Heard: April 1, 2014.

Appeal from Richland County. Appellate Case No. 2011-197986. Alison Renee Lee, Circuit Court Judge.

C. Mitchell Brown and Michael J. Anzelmo, both of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, of Columbia, and Monteith P. Todd, of Sowell Gray Stepp & Laffitte LLC, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

James Edward Bradley, of Moore, Taylor & Thomas, P.A., of Columbia, and Andrew F. Lindemann, of Davidson & Lindemann, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondents.

JUSTICE KITTREDGE. PLEICONES and BEATTY, JJ., concur. TOAL, C.J., dissenting in a separate opinion in which HEARN, J., concurs.

[411 S.C. 559] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

Page 848

KITTREDGE, JUSTICE.

At issue in this case is whether the medical malpractice statute of repose[1] applies to the indemnity claim of Petitioner Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare System, LP (Providence Hospital). The trial court and the court of appeals held that it does and thus bars the indemnity action brought by Providence Hospital. Because we conclude that Providence Hospital's indemnity action is barred by the statute of repose, we affirm.

I.

On May 31, 1997, Dr. Michael Hayes and Dr. Michael Taillon were working as emergency room physicians at Providence Hospital, presumably as independent contractors.[2] Arthur Sharpe came to the Providence Hospital emergency room on the same date, complaining of chest pain. Dr. Hayes and Dr. Taillon evaluated Sharpe and diagnosed him as suffering from reflux. Sharpe was discharged. Sharpe had actually suffered a heart attack, which was determined a few days later when he sought further medical care elsewhere.

Because of the misdiagnosis, on May 25, 1999, Sharpe and his wife filed a medical malpractice and loss of consortium action against Providence Hospital and Dr. Hayes. The Sharpes did not name Dr. Taillon as a defendant. Providence Hospital settled with the Sharpes on June 10, 2004.

On June 7, 2007, Providence Hospital filed this equitable indemnification action against Dr. Taillon and his medical malpractice insurer, The South Carolina Medical Malpractice Liability Joint Underwriting Association (collectively Respondents). Respondents moved for summary judgment on the ground that the medical malpractice statute of repose bars Providence Hospital's claim and the circuit court granted the motion on that basis. Providence Hospital appealed, and the [411 S.C. 560] court of appeals affirmed. Columbia/CSA-HS Greater Columbia Healthcare Sys. v. S.C. Med. Malpractice Liab. Joint Underwriting Ass'n, 394 S.C. 68, 75, 713 S.E.2d 639, 642 (Ct.App. 2011). We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

II.

An appellate court reviews the grant of summary judgment using the same standard employed by the circuit court. Lanham v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of S.C., Inc., 349 S.C. 356, 361, 563 S.E.2d 331, 333 (2002). Summary judgment is proper where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(c), SCRCP; Tupper v. Dorchester Cnty., 326 S.C. 318, 325, 487 S.E.2d 187, 191 (1997). " 'Questions of statutory interpretation are questions of law, which we are free to decide without any deference to the court below.'" Grier v. Amisub of S.C., Inc., 397 S.C. 532, 535, 725 S.E.2d 693, 695 (2012) (quoting CFRE, LLC v. Greenville Cnty. Assessor, 395 S.C. 67, 74, 716 S.E.2d 877, 881 (2011)).

III.

The General Assembly has enacted a six-year statute of repose for medical malpractice actions. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-545. " A statute of repose creates a substantive right in those protected to be free from liability after a legislatively determined period of time." Capco of Summerville, Inc. v. J.H. Gayle Constr. Co., 368 S.C. 137, 142, 628 S.E.2d 38, 41 (2006) (citing Langley v. Pierce, 313 S.C. 401, 403-04, 438 S.E.2d 242, 243 (1993)). " A statute of repose is typically an absolute time limit beyond which liability no longer exists and is not tolled for any reason because to do so would upset the economic balance struck by the legislative body." Id. (emphasis added) (citing Langley, 313 S.C. at 404, 438 S.E.2d at 243). Thus, " '[s]tatutes of repose by their nature impose on some plaintiffs the hardship of having a claim extinguished before it is discovered, or perhaps before it even exists.'" Id. (quoting Camacho v. Todd & Leiser Homes,

Page 849

706 N.W.2d 49, 54 n.6 (Minn. 2005)).

[411 S.C. 561] The question before us is whether Providence Hospital's claim for equitable indemnification is subject to the six-year statute of repose in section 15-3-545. " The cardinal rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the legislature." Hodges v. Rainey, 341 S.C. 79, 85, 533 S.E.2d 578, 581 (2000) (quoting Charleston Cnty. Sch. Dist. v. State Budget and Control Bd., 313 S.C. 1, 5, 437 S.E.2d 6, 8 (1993)).

Section 15-3-545(A) provides:

In any action . . . to recover damages for injury to the person arising out of any medical, surgical, or dental treatment, omission, or operation by any licensed health care provider . . . acting within the scope of his profession must be commenced within three years from the date of the treatment, omission, or operation giving rise to the cause of action or three years from date of discovery or when it reasonably ought to have been discovered, not to exceed six years from date of occurrence, or as tolled by this section.

The statute of repose applies to an action " to recover damages for injury to the person arising out of any medical, surgical, or dental treatment, omission, or operation." Under any construction of the statute, the language must include the claim against Dr. Taillon to establish medical malpractice, which has never been determined. As the court of appeals noted:

In order to prove it is entitled to equitable indemnification, Providence Hospital must show (1) [Dr.] Taillon was liable for causing Sharpe's damages, (2) it was exonerated from any liability for those damages, and (3) it suffered damages as a result of Sharpe's medical ...

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