On April 13, 2016, the South Dakota Supreme Court issued an important opinion in Berry Thomas Pitt-Hart, MD v. Sanford USD Medical Center.  The Pitt-Hart case involved a patient who had knee surgery at Sanford USD Medical Center (“Sanford”) on November 10, 2009.  The day after surgery, he alleged he was dropped and injured due to the negligence of a patient-care tech.  He commenced suit against Sanford on September 14, 2012.  Sanford argued that the claim was barred by SDCL 15-2-14.1’s two year limitations period.

The patient tried to circumvent the reach of SDCL 15-2-14.1 in three ways.  First, he argued that, since his claim was based upon the simple negligence of a tech, not the negligence of a health care practitioner like a surgeon negligently completing a procedure or a physician making the wrong diagnosis, the traditional, longer, three year negligence statute of limitations should apply.  The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that when a defendant like a hospital is named, SDCL 15-2-14.1 applies to all the alleged “errors” and “mistakes” committed in the healthcare setting.

Next, the patient argued that SDCL 15-2-14.1 should have been tolled based upon Sanford’s fraud and estoppel.  In prior case law, the South Dakota Supreme Court had gone back and forth in referring to SDCL 15-2-14.1 as a period of limitations on some occasions, and of repose on others.  Here, the Court took the opportunity to clarify and confirm that SDCL 15-2-14.1 is a statute of repose that cannot be delayed by estoppel, tolling, or fraudulent concealment.  Per SDCL 15-2-14.1, two years after a medical error or mistake occurs, liability “no longer exist[s].”

Lastly, the patient argued that SDCL 15-2-14.1 should be tolled based upon the continuing treatment doctrine.  The South Dakota Supreme Court also rejected this argument, clarifying that South Dakota does not recognize a continuing treatment doctrine, but only a continuing tort theory that could delay the start of the statute of repose “(1) [when] there was a continuous and unbroken course of negligent treatment; and, (2) [when] the treatment was so related as to constitute one continuing wrong.”

The full version of the Pitt-Hart opinion can be found here:

http://ujs.sd.gov/uploads/sc/opinions/27568.pdf

SDCL 15-2-14.1 can be found here:

http://sdlegislature.gov/Statutes/Codified_Laws/DisplayStatute.aspx?Type=Statute&Statute=15-2-14.1