By Harold Stearley
Not too long ago, the Missouri Supreme Court encountered two homicide cases where family members brought actions for the wrongful death of loved ones. One case involved a woman dying from multiple gunshot wounds in her home. The other was a consolidation of five cases involving five patients in a medical center that allegedly died at the hands of a respiratory therapist. Both cases involved homicides that were not the result of negligence, recklessness or passion – they were, by definition, murders. Both cases involved civil wrongful death actions, separate from any criminal prosecutions, that were filed after the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions had passed.
In the gunshot case, the trial court denied a motion to dismiss asserting the case was time-barred, but in the medical center cases the trial courts involved granted the hospital’s motions to dismiss on this same basis. The gunshot murder and the five consolidated medical murder cases ended up in the state’s highest court to determine whether the doctrine of equitable estoppel tolled the statute of limitations because the defendants had allegedly, fraudulently concealed their wrongdoing causing the plaintiff family members to miss the statute of limitations for bringing their claims.
The high court, however, delivered two different and opposing decisions. In the gunshot case, the court held the common law (judicially-created) doctrine of equitable estoppel applied, and the court upheld the circuit court’s denial of the motion to dismiss. But where the medical center allegedly concealed the facts from the family members (the facts supporting the claim were discussed in detail in the dissenting opinion), the high court affirmed the circuit courts’ grants of the motions to dismiss stating the common law doctrine did not apply. Both decisions were handed-down on the same day – August 18, 2015.
So what’s the difference? In one case one supreme court judge did not participate and a special judge sat on the bench. Did a one judge replacement result in opposite outcomes? While this could spark a whole range of discussions regarding the judicial process, I’ll leave that to other commentators. What I think is a tragedy is that, it appears the medical center prevailed by concealing the facts surrounding the suspected murders of five of its patients by one of its employees. In this case, the statute of limitations certainly matched the slang meaning of the abbreviation “SOL.” Time does not always heal all wounds. Sometimes time allows you to escape liability. . .
See: State ex rel. Beisly v. Perigo, 469 S.W.3d 434 (Mo. banc 2015) and Boland v. Saint Luke’s Health Sys., Inc., 471 S.W.3d 703, 704-07 (Mo. banc 2015).
*Photo Credit: I found this image on the Internet in the Public Domain. I was unable to find an attribution to the source, but it is not my photo.