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Johnson v. Open Door Community Health Centers Clarifies California Statute Of Limitations

The Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) became California Law in 1975. MICRA’s provisions include a number of traps for unwary plaintiffs, unfortunately, including a shortened statute of limitations for actions against healthcare providers arising out of their professional care.

Under MICRA, plaintiffs must bring their complaints against healthcare providers within one year, instead of the standard two-year statute of limitations for negligence actions. (Code Civ. Pro. § 340.5) However, it is not always clear whether a plaintiff’s injury is subject to MICRA’s shortened statute of limitations. This gray area was recently addressed in Johnson v. Open Door Community Health Centers, (2017) 15 Cal. App. 5th 153.

In Johnson, plaintiff Claudia Johnson attended one of defendant Open Door’s clinics to review her test results. After her consultation with the nurse-practitioner, Johnson was making her way to leave and tripped over a scale that had been moved during the consultation and was partially obstructing her path out of the treatment room. (Id. at 156.) Johnson suffered serious injuries as a result of her fall. (Id.)

Almost two years later, Johnson filed a personal injury complaint against Open Door. (Id.) In response to the complaint, Open Door moved for summary judgment alleging that Johnson’s claim was barred under MICRA’s shorter one-year statute of limitations because Johnson’s injuries were caused by a negligent act or omission by a healthcare provider in the rendering of professional services. (Id.) The trial court agreed with Open Door and held that Johnson’s claim was barred because she did not bring the action within one year pursuant to MICRA’s requirements. (Id at 157.)

Johnson appealed the decision to the California Court of Appeal, which overturned the lower court and sided with Johnson. In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeal analyzed Johnson’s case under the principles established by the California Supreme Court’s decision in Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, (2016) 63 Cal.4th 75.

In Flores, the Supreme Court examined the applicability of the MICRA statute of limitations in a case where a plaintiff was injured when one of the rails of her hospital bed collapsed while she attempted to exit the bed, causing her to be injured. (Flores, supra, 63 Cal.4th at 79.) There, the California Supreme Court ruled that the “professional activities” subject to MICRA would include activities that do not require medical skill or training, so long as the activity affects the quality of medical care. (Id. at 85.)

However, the Flores decision was also careful not to make too broad the range of activities subject to MICRA, holding that negligent acts that affect all users, such as personnel and visitors, and not just those receiving medical treatment, are not subject to MICRA because such negligence does not arise from providing professional services. (Flores, supra, 63 Cal.4th at 86.)

Thus, there is a distinction between the professional obligations of hospitals rendering professional services to patients and the obligations that hospitals owe to all persons simply by virtue of being open to the public. (Id. at 87.)

With this distinction in mind, the Court of Appeal held that Johnson’s injury was not sustained in the course of rendering professional services, but by breach of a duty owed to all visitors of the clinic.  (Johnson, supra, 15 Cal. App. 5th at 160.)

That Johnson tripped on medical equipment (a scale) that was used during her treatment earlier was insufficient to subject the claim to MICRA. Open Door’s placement of the scale was a tripping hazard that implicated Open Door’s duty to all users of the premises, not just those receiving treatment. (Id.) Thus, the Court of Appeal concluded that MICRA’s one-year statute of limitations was not applicable to this case and reversed the lower court’s earlier decision.

Although Johnson illustrates that injuries occurring at medical care facilities are not always subject to MICRA’s one-year statute of limitations, any potential problem can be avoided by simply filing the lawsuit within one year of the injury. If you have been injured at a medical care facility it is advisable to contact an attorney regarding your potential claims as soon as possible.

(This is an attorney advertisement by Joshua Haffner)

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