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Miriam A. Ruday v. Shore Memorial Hospital

October 18, 2011


On appeal from interlocutory orders of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-485-09.

Per curiam.


Argued October 4, 2011

Before Judges Payne and Simonelli.

By leave granted, plaintiff Miriam A. Ruday appeals from the February 18, 2011 Law Division orders, which denied her third motion to amend her complaint to add defendants after the expiration of the statute of limitations, and granted the motion of defendant Shore Memorial Hospital (Shore) to limit its damages to $250,000 pursuant to the Charitable Immunity Act (the Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-7 to -11.1. We affirm.

On January 1, 2008, plaintiff, then eighty-six years old, was admitted to Shore as a result of a fall at her home. The hospital classified her as a "fall risk," which required medical personnel to reassess her regularly to ensure her safety. Because of her risk status, plaintiff was placed in a bed that was equipped with two side rails in the "up" position and with a bed alarm that notified hospital personnel if she left the bed. The alarm, which minimizes but does not prevent falls, is located at the foot of the bed, and is activated by pushing a button. A light goes on when the alarm is activated.

At approximately 5:30 a.m. on January 2, 2008, hospital personnel discovered plaintiff on the floor of her room, near her bed. She had apparently climbed over the bed rails and fallen to the floor. Plaintiff fractured her right femur, and the fall accelerated the onset of dementia. Plaintiff claimed that one or more Shore employees negligently deactivated the bed alarm. Shore admitted the alarm had been deactivated, but never admitted negligence or that a Shore employee was responsible.

Plaintiff obtained her hospital records prior to filing a complaint. The records revealed that nurse Beverly Peifer was on duty and assigned to care for plaintiff from 7:00 p.m. on January 1, 2008, to 7:00 a.m. on January 2, 2008, and performed several neurological assessments on plaintiff before midnight on January 1 and again at 4:00 a.m. on January 2. Peifer denied that she deactivated plaintiff's bed alarm. The records also reveal that nurses Phyllis Noddin, Kimberly Gardener, Kimberly Williams and nurse's aide Severino Untalan (the First Nurse Group) were involved in plaintiff's care.

Plaintiff had also obtained an expert's report prior to filing her complaint. The expert concluded, in part, that the nursing staff was negligent and had violated the standard of care for patient safety and falls. On February 5, 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint against Shore and fictitious individuals and corporations. She did not name Peifer or anyone from the First Nurse Group as defendants.

In plaintiff's answers to interrogatories, served in June 2009, she identified the negligent parties as "Shore . . . directly and through its medical staff, including the nursing staff . . . on duty during the time period of January 2, 2008, including Beverly Peifer . . . ." Plaintiff also stated that the nurses and staff listed in her hospital records possessed knowledge of relevant facts relating to the lawsuit.

Plaintiff's interrogatories to Shore requested the names of all persons who had knowledge of any relevant facts relating to the lawsuit. Sometime prior to October 21, 2009, Shore provided the following answer:

The parties; all physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals who treated, examined, or otherwise cared for the plaintiff at any time in connection with any injuries sustained due to the alleged negligence of the defendant and/or in connection with any pre-existing conditions; all persons named in all other parties' answers to interrogatories and in any documents supplied during discovery; all persons identified during any depositions taken in this case; and, such other persons whose identities are revealed through further discovery and investigation. [(Emphasis added).]

The statute of limitations expired on January 2, 2010. See N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. Plaintiff deposed Shore's nurse manager on January 5, 2010, and its nurse supervisor on April 26, 2010. Plaintiff did not ask either witness to identify nurses who had worked on the floor where plaintiff's room was located at the time of the incident.

On May 26, 2010, plaintiff filed a motion to amend the complaint to add Peifer as a defendant. Judge Nelson Johnson denied the motion, concluding that "[Peifer] was known [to plaintiff] from day one" and "was identified in plaintiff's answers to interrogatories as someone complicit in the ...

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