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Patton v. Miller

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 26, 2017

Angela Patton, as Next Friend of Alexia L., a minor, Petitioner,
v.
Gregory A. Miller, M.D., Rock Hill Gynecological & Obstetrical Associates, P.A. and Amisub of South Carolina, d/b/a Piedmont Medical Center, Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2015-002135

          Heard December 14, 2016

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

         Appeal from York County S. Jackson Kimball III, Special Circuit Court Judge.

          John Layton Ruffin, Edward L. Graham, and Diane M. Rodriguez, of Graham Law Firm, PA, all of Florence, for Petitioner.

          Ashby W. Davis, of Davis, Snyder, Williford & Lehn, P.A., of Greenville; R. Hawthorne Barrett and Thomas C. Salane, both of Turner Padget Graham & Laney, PA, of Columbia; William U. Gunn and Joshua Tate Thompson, both of Holcombe Bomar, PA, of Columbia, all for Respondents.

          FEW JUSTICE.

         The question posed in this appeal is whether a minor may bring an action for her own medical expenses. The answer depends on whether she is the "real party in interest, " and any dispute over the answer is governed by Rule 17(a) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         Alexia L. was born on April 5, 2007, at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill. Gregory A. Miller, M.D., was the obstetrician who delivered her. Alexia's mother-Angela Patton-filed a medical malpractice lawsuit in November 2009 against Dr. Miller and the professional association where he practiced, Rock Hill Gynecological & Obstetrical Associates, P.A. Patton filed the lawsuit only in her capacity as Alexia's "next friend."[1] She sought damages from Dr. Miller and Rock Hill Obstetrical for Alexia's injuries and past and future medical expenses.

         In March 2012, Patton filed a separate medical malpractice lawsuit against Amisub of South Carolina, which owns and does business as Piedmont Medical Center. She also filed the Amisub lawsuit only in her capacity as Alexia's next friend, and sought the same damages she sought in the first lawsuit. In July 2012, the parties consented to consolidate the two cases, and Patton-again acting only as Alexia's next friend-filed an amended complaint naming Dr. Miller, Rock Hill Obstetrical, and Amisub as defendants. In the amended complaint, as in the first two, Patton did not make any claim in her individual capacity. The only claims she made were Alexia's claims, which she made in her representative capacity as Alexia's next friend.

         Patton's theory of liability was that the defendants-primarily Dr. Miller- "improperly managed the resolution of shoulder dystocia[2] . . . and that such mismanagement caused permanent injury to Alexia's left-sided brachial plexus[3]nerves." Patton sought damages for Alexia's pain and suffering, disability, loss of earning capacity, and other harm she contends resulted from this injury. Patton also sought damages for Alexia's medical expenses.

         The fact that Patton brought the claim for medical expenses only in her representative capacity as Alexia's next friend-and not in Patton's own capacity- is at the center of this appeal. Dr. Miller, Rock Hill Obstetrical, and Amisub moved for partial summary judgment on the basis of this fact. They argued the circuit court should dismiss the claim for medical expenses because only a parent-not the child-has the right to recover damages for a minors' medical expenses. The defendants argued, in other words, Patton could recover for Alexia's medical expenses if she sued in her own capacity, but she may not recover them in her capacity as Alexia's representative. The circuit court agreed and granted partial summary judgment to all three defendants. The court found "the minor plaintiff may not maintain a cause of action for [her medical] expenses in her own right."

         Patton filed two motions in response to the circuit court's order. First, she filed a motion to alter or amend the summary judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. She also filed a motion to amend her complaint pursuant to Rule 15 to "change [her] capacity . . . from Next Friend to her individual capacity." She asked that the amendment relate back to the date of her original complaint, as provided for in Rule 15(c). The circuit court denied both motions.

         Patton appealed to the court of appeals, which affirmed in an unpublished opinion. Patton v. Miller, Op. No. 2015-UP-367 (S.C. Ct. App. filed July 22, 2015). We granted Patton's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision. We reverse that portion of the circuit court's order that awards partial summary judgment to Dr. Miller and Rock Hill Obstetrical, affirm the award of partial summary judgment to Amisub, and remand to the circuit court.

         II. Rule 17, SCRCP-The Proper Plaintiff

         By claiming that only a parent-not the child-may bring a claim for the child's medical expenses, the defendants invoked the "real party in interest" requirement of Rule 17(a) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides, "Every action shall be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest." A real party in interest is "the party who, by the substantive law, has the right sought to be enforced. It is ownership of the right sought to be enforced which qualifies one as a real party in interest." Bank of Am., N.A. v. Draper, 405 S.C. 214, 220, 746 S.E.2d 478, 481 (Ct. App. 2013); see also 6A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure §1541 (3d ed. 2010) (stating Rule 17(a) provides "that the action should be brought in the name of the party who possesses the substantive right being asserted under the applicable law . . . ."); 6 Cyclopedia of Federal Procedure § 21.7 (3d ed., rev. 2017) ("The 'real party in interest' . . . is defined as the person holding the substantive right to be enforced, and not necessarily the person who will ultimately benefit from the recovery.").

         The requirement that an action must be brought by the real party in interest is not a new requirement. Section 134 of our 1867 Code provided, "Every action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest . . . ." S.C. Code § 134 (1867). The "real party in interest" requirement can be found in all subsequent versions of the Code including the 1976 Code. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-5-70 (1976) (repealed 1985). As the Reporter's Note to Rule 17(a) indicates, "The first sentence . . . [is] substantially the same as Code §§ 15-5-70 and 80."

         The defendants and the circuit court rely primarily on two cases in which we applied the real party in interest requirement to a claim for a minor's medical expenses. In Hughey v. Ausborn, 249 S.C. 470, 154 S.E.2d 839 (1967), we stated "the amount paid for medical care and treatment by the parent is not an element of damage" in a cause of action brought by the minor, but rather "the parent has a cause of action for the recovery of the medical expenses which he has incurred for the care and treatment of such minor." 249 S.C. at 475, 154 S.E.2d at 841; see S.C. Code § 10-207 (1962) (stating the real party in interest requirement). In Tucker v. Buffalo Cotton Mills, 76 S.C. 539, 57 S.E. 626 (1907), we stated a "father suing merely as guardian ad litem for injuries to his infant child cannot recover for [the child's medical] expenses" because "the father himself is personally liable" to pay those expenses. 76 S.C. at 542, 57 S.E. at 627; see Code of Civil Procedure of South Carolina § 132 (1902) (stating the real party in interest requirement). See also Hughey, 249 S.C. at 476, 154 S.E.2d at 841 (explaining that the basis of the parent's right to recover the damages is the parent's obligation to pay the child's medical expenses); 67A C.J.S. Parent and Child § 352 (2013) ("The parental right to recover expenses when a child is injured stems from the parents' legal obligation to support a child."). Applying the real party in interest requirement to the facts of those cases, we recognized that the legal obligation to pay a medical bill renders the person who holds that obligation the proper party to bring a claim, or the "real party in interest." This is the principle of law relied on by the defendants and the circuit court, and it is the same principle embodied in the definition of real party in interest set forth in Draper.

         We must determine, therefore, whether Patton-in her capacity as Alexia's next friend and not in her own capacity-meets the real party in interest requirement on her claim for Alexia's medical expenses. In particular, we must determine whether Patton's representative claim for Alexia's medical expenses is consistent with our application of the real party in interest requirement to similar claims in Hughey and Tucker. We begin our analysis with Patton's description in her briefs to the court of appeals and this Court of the medical expenses she sought to recover:

Following her injuries, Alexia has received necessary and proper treatment from a host of healthcare providers, including a nerve resection surgery. Alexia will need additional surgeries and other treatment continuing until her eighteenth birthday, as well as continued treatment after she reaches the age of majority. Accordingly, she will incur future medical bills during her entire lifetime.

         These medical expenses fall into three categories. First, Patton seeks to recover for medical expenses that will have been incurred at the time of trial. These include the cost of the nerve resection surgery that has already been performed. Second, Patton seeks to recover for expenses that will be incurred in the future, but before Alexia turns eighteen. Third, Patton seeks to recover for expenses Alexia will incur after she reaches the age of eighteen, which Patton contends Alexia will incur "during her entire lifetime."

         Applying Hughey, Tucker, and Draper to the third category of medical expenses Patton seeks to recover-those Alexia will incur after turning eighteen-Alexia is clearly the real party in interest on a claim for those expenses. At that time she will be an adult, and the medical services provider may legally seek payment for the services from Alexia herself. Because Alexia will be obligated to pay the bills for those services, she owns the right to recover them as damages. The circuit court apparently recognized this, and specifically granted summary judgment only on "Plaintiff's claims for her own medical or injury-related expenses incurred to date, and to be incurred during her minority." Thus, Patton-acting on behalf of Alexia and not in her individual capacity-is the real party in interest for future medical expenses Alexia will incur after she turns eighteen, and properly brought the claim.

         Turning to the second category of expenses Patton seeks to recover-those incurred between the time of trial and Alexia's eighteenth birthday-Hughey, Tucker, and Draper require that we determine who has the legal obligation to pay those expenses, which in turn informs us who owns the right to recover them as damages, and thus who meets the real party in interest requirement. Patton-in her individual capacity-is a real party in interest. Under South Carolina law, Patton's parental responsibilities include the legal obligation to pay her child's medical expenses. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 63-5-20 & -30 (2010). Because of that obligation, Patton owns a substantive right to recover damages for those expenses. Therefore, Patton-in her individual capacity-satisfies the Rule 17(a) requirement that the claim be brought by the real party in interest. Draper, 405 S.C. at 220, 746 S.E.2d at 481.

         The question before us, however, is whether the circuit court correctly concluded that Patton-in her representative capacity-is not the real party in interest. As the following discussion demonstrates, the analysis of whether a representative qualifies as the real party in interest for future medical expenses is not as simple as the analysis for past medical expenses was in 1907 in Tucker and in 1967 in Hughey. In fact, none of the cases relied on by the defendants or the circuit court involved claims for future medical expenses. Cf. Sox v. United States, 187 F.Supp. 465, 469-70 (E.D.S.C. 1960) (permitting a minor to recover her own future, pre-majority, medical expenses).

         If Patton recovers Alexia's future medical expenses, for any recovery above a minimal amount, the funds paid by these defendants must be paid to a conservator, or some other adult fiduciary representative. See S.C. Code Ann. § 62-5-433(B)(3) (2009) (requiring payment of settlement funds to a conservator); S.C. Code Ann. § 62-5-401 (Supp. 2016) (permitting the appointment of a conservator for a "minor [who] owns money or property that requires management or protection").[4] The "conservator [must] act as a fiduciary, " and thus the funds must remain in the custody of the conservator until they are used for Alexia's benefit, or until she turns eighteen. S.C. Code Ann. § 62-5-417 (2009). For medical expenses actually incurred while Alexia is a minor, the conservator has a legal obligation to pay them. S.C. Code Ann. § 62-5-428(a)(1) (Supp. 2016).

         If Patton is now or later becomes Alexia's conservator, then her fiduciary obligation to pay Alexia's medical expenses will make her the real party in interest-in her representative capacity. However, whether a particular plaintiff is a real party in interest must be determined at the time of filing, and the identity of the conservator is often not known until the time a recovery is made. It is clear, however, that Alexia's representative-or conservator-will have a legal obligation to pay future medical expenses before Alexia's eighteenth birthday. Under Hughey, Tucker, and Draper, therefore, the conservator's legal obligation to pay the expenses renders the representative who brought the action a real party in interest.

         Turning to the first category of medical expenses-those already incurred at the time of trial-Patton is a real party in interest in her individual capacity because of her obligation to pay them. §§ 63-5-20 & -30. The circuit court correctly concluded, therefore, that Patton may sue in her individual capacity to recover medical expenses that have already been paid for the care and treatment of Alexia.

         The circuit court's partial summary judgment order, however, was not based on that conclusion. Rather, the order was based on the circuit court's categorical determination that Patton may not sue for those expenses in any representative capacity. The circuit court stated, "Neither of her parents have sued individually to recover [Alexia's medical] expenses, and the minor plaintiff may not maintain a cause of action for [her medical] expenses in her own right." To determine whether the circuit court's statement was correct, and thus whether it correctly granted partial summary judgment based on it, Hughey, Tucker, and Draper require that we analyze whether Patton-in her representative capacity-has a legal obligation to pay the medical bills.

         As we did with the second category of expenses, we question whether this analysis may be conducted in 2017 with the simplicity with which we analyzed it in Tucker and Hughey. To illustrate this point, we turn to Patton's representation to the circuit court that "Alexia is covered by Medicaid, which has paid vast sums on her behalf for medical care." To the extent Alexia's medical bills were paid by Medicaid, they were not paid by either of her parents. In both Tucker and Hughey, the injured child's father paid the medical bills.[5]Tucker, 76 S.C. at 542, 57 S.E. at 627; Hughey, 249 S.C. at 475, 154 S.E.2d at 841. The collateral source rule preserves the parent's right to recover the damages, even though the parent did not pay the medical expenses.[6] However, federal and state law provides Medicaid an automatic right of subrogation. See generally 42 U.S.C. § 1395y(b)(2) (2012 & Supp. II 2014); 42 C.F.R. § 411.24(e) & (g) (2016); S.C. Code Ann. § 43-7-430 (2015) (collectively defining federal subrogation rights to third-party recovery of medical expenses paid by Medicaid, and the Medicaid recipient's legal obligation to repay). A similar right of subrogation often exists pursuant to the insurance contract when the medical expenses are paid by a private insurer. See S.C. Code Ann. ยง 38-71-190 (2015) ("Any policy or contract of accident and health insurance issued in this State may include provision for subrogation by the insurer to the insured's right of recovery against a liable third party . . . ."). Therefore, a child's representative who seeks damages for a child's medical expenses that were paid by Medicaid or some other insurer is almost certainly under a legal duty to reimburse the actual payor ...


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