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Keith v. Northern Hospital District of Surry County

May 05, 1998

JUDY ANN KEITH, PLAINTIFF
v.
NORTHERN HOSPITAL DISTRICT OF SURRY COUNTY, D/B/A NORTHERN HOSPITAL OF SURRY COUNTY, DEFENDANT



Appeal by plaintiff from order filed 7 April 1997 by Judge C. Preston Cornelius in Surry County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 17 February 1998.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Greene, Judge.

Judy Ann Keith (plaintiff) appeals from an order of the trial court denying her motion to amend her complaint and dismissing her action against Northern Hospital District of Surry County (defendant).

The facts are as follows: On 5 June 1996, the plaintiff filed a "Motion To Extend the Statute of Limitations" for filing a medical malpractice claim in accordance with Rule 9(j) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure. *fn1 The trial court granted the motion and the granting of that motion is not an issue in this appeal. On 4 October 1996, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging medical malpractice against Kenneth D. Gitt, M.D. (Dr. Gitt), Tom J. Vaughn, M.D. (Dr. Vaughn), Mt. Airy OB-GYN Center, Inc. (Center), and the defendant. The complaint did not include any allegations as required by Rule 9(j) of the Rules of Civil Procedure. The claims against Dr. Gitt, Dr. Vaughn, and the Center were dismissed by the trial court on two grounds: failure to state a claim and failure to comply with Rule 9(j). The plaintiff did not appeal those dismissals. In the defendant's answer it sought dismissal of the complaint on the ground that the plaintiff had not complied with Rule 9(j). On 23 January 1997, the plaintiff sought to amend her complaint to include allegations that a "person who [was] reasonably expected to qualify as an expert witness under Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence" had reviewed her medical care and was willing to testify that the medical care received by the plaintiff "did not comply with the applicable standard of care . . . ."

On 10 March 1997, the plaintiff's motion to amend and the defendant's motion to dismiss came on for hearing before the trial court. The trial court denied the plaintiff's motion to amend and allowed the defendant's motion to dismiss. The dismissal was with prejudice. In its order, the trial court concluded that the plaintiff failed to comply with Rule 9(j) because:

[S]he failed to assert in [her] complaint that the care provided to her had been reviewed by a person who was reasonably expected to qualify as an expert witness under Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence, and who was willing to testify that the care provided to her did not comply with the applicable standard of care.

The trial court articulated no reason for denying the plaintiff's motion to amend.

The dispositive issue is whether a medical malpractice complaint that fails to include the Rule 9(j) certification can be subsequently amended pursuant to Rule 15 to include the Rule 9(j) certification.

Rule 9(j) of our Rules of Civil Procedure provides that complaints alleging:

[M]edical malpractice by a health care provider as defined in G.S. 90-21.11 . . . shall be dismissed unless:

(1) The pleading specifically asserts that the medical care has been reviewed by a person who is reasonably expected to qualify as an expert witness under Rule 702 of the Rules of Evidence and who is willing to testify that the medical care did not comply with the applicable standard of care . . . .

N.C.G.S. § 1A-1, Rule 9(j) (Supp. 1997). This rule is unambiguous in stating that the complaint "shall be dismissed" if the complaint does not include a certification that the medical care at issue has been reviewed by a person "reasonably expected to qualify as an expert" and "who is willing to testify that the medical care [which is the subject of the pleading] did not comply with the applicable standard of care." When the statutory language is "clear and unambiguous, 'there is no room for judicial construction,' and the statute must be given effect in accordance with its plain and definite meaning." Avco Financial Services v. Isbell, 67 N.C. App. 341, 343, 312 S.E.2d 707, 708 (1984) (quoting Williams v. Williams, 299 N.C. 174, 180, 261 S.E.2d 849, 854 (1980)). It follows, therefore, that because the complaint in this case alleged a claim for medical malpractice against a "health care provider" *fn2 and did not include the necessary Rule 9(j) certification, the trial court was required to dismiss it. *fn3

In so holding we reject the argument of the plaintiff that any Rule 9(j) deficiency in the complaint can be corrected by subsequently amending the complaint, pursuant to Rule 15(a), by adding the Rule 9(j) certification and having that amendment relate back, pursuant to Rule 15(c), to the date of the filing of the complaint. *fn4 N.C.G.S. § 1A-1, Rule 15 (1990) (providing for amendments to complaints and relation back of new claims). To read Rule 15 in this manner would defeat the objective of Rule 9(j) which, as revealed in the title of the legislation, seeks to avoid the filing of frivolous medical malpractice claims. 1995 N.C. Sess. Laws ch. 309 ("Act To Prevent Frivolous Medical Malpractice Actions By . . . Requir[ing] Expert Witness Review As A Condition Of Filing A Medical Malpractice Action"); State v. Hart, 287 N.C. 76, 80, 213 S.E.2d 291, 295 (1975) (statutory construction which "defeat[s] or impair[s] the object of the statute must be avoided if that can reasonably be done without violence to the legislative language"). Indeed, as stated well by the defendant in its brief to this Court:

[P]laintiff's 'file first, review later, relate back' argument would return us to the very situation the legislature expressly sought to end, that is, the filing of malpractice actions before the plaintiff had ascertained the existence, in fact, of the expert opinion evidence necessary to establish a breach of the applicable standard of care.

In any event, the plaintiff's Rule 15(c) argument is without merit, as it is only "claims" asserted in the amended complaint that are "deemed to have been interposed at the time the claim in the original pleading was interposed." N.C.G.S. ยง 1A-1, Rule 15(c). Here the plaintiff does not seek to assert a new claim in its amended ...


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