From the Desk of Melanie Rose: Plaintiffs do not have endless time to file their legal actions. Rather civil claims are subject to statutes of limitation, which require a lawsuit to be filed within a specified amount of time based on the type of action—personal injury, wrongful death, breach of contract, etc. However, there are instances where these limitation periods are extended, or tolled. One circumstance that can toll the limitation period is when the plaintiff has a “disabling mental condition.”
Claims Pointer: In this opinion, the Oregon Court of Appeals found that a plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress may not be time barred because the emotional distress the plaintiff experienced could constitute a “disabling mental condition” sufficient to toll the limitation period. Although the court decided this in the paradoxical context of a claim specifically for emotional distress, the opinion is written broadly enough that going forward we may see the statute of limitations being tolled for other claims as well—all a plaintiff must allege is that they were too emotionally impaired to recognize their legal rights within the limitation period.
Thompson v. Portland Adventist Medical Center, 309 Or App 118 (February 3, 2021)
This case arose from a tragic set of circumstances. In August of 2012, the plaintiff gave birth to her son via caesarian section at the Portland Adventist Medical Center. After three days of being at the hospital, the plaintiff was cleared for discharge for the next day. The plaintiff wanted to be well rested for her first day at home with her son, so hospital staff provided her with a sleeping medication that night. The plaintiff was also on narcotic pain medications for the surgery she had just endured. At around 3:00 AM, a nurse brough the plaintiff’s newborn son in to breastfeed and handed him to the plaintiff. The nurse then left the two of them alone in the plaintiff’s hospital bed. About an hour later, the plaintiff awoke to find her son unresponsive due to suffocation—six days later her son passed away after being removed from life support. After her son’s death, the plaintiff suffered from immense feelings of guilt and grief, partially because she felt she was at fault for her son’s death. As part of her intake paperwork, the plaintiff had signed a form at the medical center stating that she would not sleep in the same bed as her newborn, which she testified caused her to believe that she was at fault for her son’s death.
Following the tragic death of her son, the plaintiff started attending therapy and a grief support group. The plaintiff attended these sessions for about a year and then stopped when she became pregnant with her second child. In 2016, the plaintiff resumed therapy and was still struggling with symptoms of psychological distress. In 2017, the plaintiff and her therapist discussed that she should consider speaking with a lawyer about any options she might have in pursuing legal action against the hospital. On August 1, 2017, (nearly three years after the statute of limitations had passed) the plaintiff filed a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the hospital and the unknown nurse who had left her son with her.
In response to the claim, the defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that the claim was time barred because the statute of limitations had already run by the time the plaintiff filed her complaint. In response, the plaintiff argued that she had suffered from grief, depression, and PTSD, which all amounted to a disabling mental condition that would toll the statute of limitations, pursuant to ORS 12.160. The trial court agreed with the defendants and granted the Motion for Summary Judgment, finding that the conditions alleged were legally insufficient to toll the statute of limitations. The plaintiff appealed.
In Oregon, if an individual has a “disabling mental condition that bars the person from comprehending rights that the person is otherwise bound to know, the statute of limitations for commencing the action is tolled.” ORS 12.160(3). The statute of limitations tolls for the entire time the person has the disabling mental condition and the claim must be brought within one year after the individual no longer suffers from the disabling mental condition. However, the maximum length of time the statute of limitations can be tolled is five years. Notably, the mental condition must actually bar the plaintiff from comprehending her legal rights. However, the Court of Appeals determined that whether a mental condition rises to this high bar is a question of fact—which means it is a question that must be submitted to the jury and typically cannot be resolved by motion practice.
During the appeal, the defendants argued that some notes from plaintiff’s therapy sessions revealed that she was aware that the defendants had wronged her. Session notes indicated that at some point in 2013, the plaintiff was angry at the hospital and the unknown nurse. A few months later in 2013, another session note from her grief group stated that the group had validated the plaintiff’s feelings towards the hospital and nurse and that she had the “right to complain”. The defendants argued that these notes taken with the plaintiff’s ability to function at work and provide childcare to her other children demonstrated that she was not so mentally disabled that she was unaware of her legal rights—the standard required by the tolling statute.
The court of appeals found that the therapist notes were ambiguous and that other notes from the same sessions provided conflicting evidence that the plaintiff did not have an understanding of her rights to make a claim against the medical center and nurse. The court stressed that in the context of a Motion for Summary Judgment, the court must consider all facts presented in the light most favorable to the non-moving party—the plaintiff. The court found that even in this favorable light, it was a close call regarding whether the plaintiff was truly so impaired by her depression and PSTD that she could not comprehend her legal rights. However, in opposing the Motion for Summary Judgment, the plaintiff’s counsel submitted a declaration that plaintiff had retained an expert who was qualified to testify about the impacts that “PTSD, depressive disorders, bereavement, and cognitive impairments” have on the “mental process of comprehension, judgment, memory, and reasoning.”
Oregon does not allow for expert discovery, even in the context of summary judgment. Under Oregon’s procedural rules, if a party would be required to submit expert testimony to oppose a motion for summary judgment, that party can effectively defeat the motion simply by submitting a declaration that states the party has retained a qualified expert whose testimony at trial will create a genuine issue of material fact. No further information about the expert or their opinions need be provided—the declaration alone is sufficient to defeat the motion.
In evaluating the expert declaration presented by plaintiff in this case, the Court determined that it was sufficient to defeat the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment and the case would need to be presented to a jury to determine whether the plaintiff’s depression and PTSD were sufficiently disabling that she could not understand her legal rights. The court found that diagnosis and analysis of mental health conditions such as PTSD and depression was not within the general knowledge of a lay juror and so the expert testimony would be necessary to allow the jury to fully evaluate plaintiff’s claims of a disabling mental condition.
The court distinguished this case in front of them from a previous Oregon Court of Appeals decision, Gaspar v. Village Missions. In that case, the plaintiff claimed that she had suffered from PTSD as a result of the physical and psychological abuse from her religious advisor. Over three years later, the plaintiff brought a suit against her advisor, claiming that her PTSD had tolled the statute of limitations under ORS 12.160. In that case, the court found that the plaintiff’s psychologist’s notes revealed that she felt her advisor had wronged her and that she wanted redress. Moreover, in Gaspar the plaintiff had participated with her therapist in writing a letter to her advisor discussing the abuse. Finally, in Gaspar the plaintiff had not submitted expert testimony that would create an issue of fact based on the therapy notes that clearly demonstrated that the plaintiff in Gaspar understood that her advisor was responsible for the harm she experienced.
After describing the differences with the Gaspar case, The Oregon Court of Appeals found that in the case before it, the ambiguous therapy notes combined with the declaration regarding expert testimony were sufficient to create a genuine issue of fact. Therefore, this case was sent back to the trial court to allow a jury to determine if the plaintiff’s emotional state was enough to constitute a “disabling mental condition” under the tolling statute.
THE BIG PICTURE
Plaintiffs bring civil suits in an effort to seek compensation for perceived wrongs and injuries. At times, these injuries can result from especially tragic circumstances which cause not only physical damage, but emotional harm as well. This opinion provides that a plaintiff may be able to bring a case years after an injury, by arguing the emotional pain that resulted from the injury was so severe that it caused a “disabling mental condition” that tolled the statute of limitations. Moreover, the Court of Appeals’ reliance on plaintiff’s expert affidavit to overcome the Motion for Summary Judgment, provides plaintiffs with an avenue for defeating statute of limitations defenses without having to provide evidence of their mental impairment up front—defendants will have to wait for the expert to take the stand at trial in order to learn the basis of their opinions.