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White v. Mattera

February 05, 2003

DOUGLAS WHITE, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF TRACY WHITE, DECEASED AND DOUGLAS WHITE, IN HIS OWN RIGHT, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ALFRED MATTERA, D.O., WILLIAM MADISON, D.O., DANIEL ABESH, D.O., JOHN DOE, MARY DOE AND JAMES DOE, DEFENDANTS, AND COOPER HOSPITAL/UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

In this appeal, the Court determines whether the hospital liability limit of $10,000, subsequently amended to $250,000 in 1991, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8, applies when the alleged malpractice of the non-profit hospital occurred in 1986, but its patient did not suffer harm from that malpractice until 1996.

In May 1986, Tracy White (decedent) was involved in an automobile accident. She was transported to defendant Cooper Hospital/University Medical Center (hospital) where she underwent an emergency splenectomy and other orthopedic surgeries to treat injuries to her legs. After two months at the hospital, decedent was discharged. It is undisputed that during her period of hospitalization she did not receive Pneumovax, a pneumococcal vaccine that is administered to patients following a splenectomy. Over the next five years, decedent continued to receive care and treatment at the hospital. Her last visit to the hospital was in December 1991.

Between 1986 and 1996, decedent suffered from upper respiratory infections, occasional fevers, and viral infections, but at no time did she manifest a life-threatening condition. In July 1996, however, decedent began to experience chronic high fevers and earaches. Despite her taking antibiotics, decedent's condition gradually deteriorated. On October 7, 1996, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with respiratory distress syndrome caused by pneumococcal sepsis. The next day, decedent died from complications associated with pneumococcal sepsis.

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff met with one of the decedent's treating physicians. The physician inquired whether the hospital had given the decedent a pneumococcal vaccine after her splenectomy. The doctor informed plaintiff that he did not administer the vaccine to the decedent, nor was he aware of whether the hospital or any other of decedent's treating physicians had vaccinated her.

On further inquiry, plaintiff learned that the decedent did not receive the vaccine between the time of her splenectomy in 1986 and the time of her death in 1996. In 1998, plaintiff brought a wrongful death action and a survivorship action against the hospital and three private physicians. Plaintiff alleged that the hospital was negligent in failing to administer the vaccine shortly after the decedent's splenectomy and in failing to educate her about the risk of infection resulting from the removal of her spleen. Because the Legislature had amended the Charitable Immunity Act in 1991 to increase a nonprofit hospital's liability limit from $10,000 to $250,000, the hospital filed a motion to enforce the pre-amendment statutory limit in the event that it was found liable for negligence. The trial court granted the hospital's motion because the hospital's conduct took place in 1986, at which time the limitation of liability was $10,000.

The Appellate Division reversed. The parties did not dispute that by operation of the discovery rule, plaintiff's causes of action did not accrue until 1996. The panel found that just as the discovery rule functions in the statute-of- limitations context to avoid precluding a plaintiff from asserting a substantive right, so too should the rule be applied to afford this plaintiff the substantive right of seeking recovery against the hospital up to the post-amendment limit of $250,000. The panel also relied on the plain language of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 to hold that the post-amendment limit applied because the decedent and the plaintiff did not suffer damages from the hospital's negligence until 1996.

HELD: The hospital liability limit of $250,000, pursuant to the 1991 amendment to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8, applies to this case in which the hospital's alleged negligent act or omission occurred prior to the amendment, but the hospital's beneficiary did not suffer harm from the negligence until after the amendment's effective date.

1. N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 provides that "any nonprofit corporation, society or association organized exclusively for hospital purposes shall be liable to respond in damages to such beneficiary who shall suffer damage from the negligence of such corporation, society or association ... to an amount not exceeding $250,000...." Prior to the 1991 amendment, the liability limit was $10,000. (Pp. 5 to 6).

2. A cause of action "accrues" on the date when the right to institute and maintain a suit first arises. In Schiavo v. John F. Kennedy Hospital, 258 N.J. Super. 380 (App. Div. 1992), aff'd o.b., 131 N.J. 400 (1993), the Appellate Division found that the 1991 amendment to N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 applies prospectively only to claims accruing on or after the effective date of the amendment. The Court gleans from Schiavo that the Legislature intended the increased limit to apply prospectively to a claim in which a patient suffers actual injury or damage from a hospital's alleged negligence on or after the effective date of the 1991 amendment. (Pp. 7 to 8).

3. As a general rule, in interpreting a statute, the Court must first look to the plain language of the statute. If the language is clear on its face, the sole function of the court is to enforce it according to its terms. Here, the parties do not dispute that the decedent was a beneficiary of the hospital. It is also undisputed that the hospital failed to inoculate the decedent with the vaccine, and that the omission presents a colorable claim that the hospital was negligent. Finally, the decedent had no discernable injuries--no damages--until she contracted pneumococcal sepsis in 1996, which resulted in her death.

Before that time, she had no cause of action against the hospital. Therefore, because the plain language of N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-8 requires that a hospital's beneficiary suffer damage before the hospital is subject to suit under the Charitable Immunity Act, and because the decedent did not suffer harm until after the effective date of the amendment, the increased hospital liability limit of $250,000 is applicable to plaintiff's claims. (Pp. 8 to 11).

4 The discovery rule is not relevant to the disposition of this appeal. The discovery rule tolls the running of the statute of limitations from the date a plaintiff is harmed by the negligence of a tortfeasor until that plaintiff discovers or should have discovered through reasonable diligence his or her injury. The undisputed fact that plaintiff did not discover the hospital's alleged negligence until after the statute was amended in 1991 does not affect the Court's disposition. The appropriate date for determining the applicability of the 1991 amendment, pursuant to the language of the statute, is the point at which a patient sustains actual damage from a hospital's negligent act or omission. (Pp. 11 to 14).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA and ALBIN join in ...


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