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McLaughlin v. Murphy

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 11, 2018

Connor McLaughlin, administrator of the Estate of Peter James McLaughlin, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
Christopher J. Murphy, M.D. and University Healthcare Physicians, Inc. d/b/a University Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, Defendants Below, Respondents

          Berkeley County 15-C-682

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Connor McLaughlin, administrator of the Estate of Peter James McLaughlin, by counsel Paul G. Taylor, appeals the April 17, 2017, order of the Circuit Court of Berkeley County denying petitioner's motion to alter or amend its February 3, 2017, order granting Respondent University Healthcare Physicians, Inc., d/b/a University Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry's ("UHP") motion to dismiss. Petitioner also appeals the circuit court's April 17, 2017, order denying his motion to alter or amend its February 8, 2017, order granting Respondent Christopher J. Murphy, M.D.'s ("Dr. Murphy") motion to dismiss. Respondent UHP, by counsel David E. Schumacher and Daniel T. LeMasters, and Dr. Murphy, by counsel Chelsea V. Prince, filed their respective responses.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Peter James McLaughlin ("the decedent") was admitted as a patient at UHP on or about December 22, 2013, and Dr. Murphy was assigned as the attending provider. Dr. Murphy diagnosed the decedent with Bipolar I Disorder, suicidal ideation, cocaine abuse, and feigning illness. The decedent was prescribed Lamictal, but that medicine was directed not to be taken until December 29, 2013, and Dolophine was prescribed beginning on December 28, 2013. The decedent was directed to stop taking Oxymorphone, Tylenol, Motrin, and Aleve.

         On the morning of December 28, 2013, the decedent submitted a formal request for discharge, so Dr. Murphy met with him. At that time, the decedent denied any suicidal, self-harm, or homicidal ideation, and according to Dr. Murphy showed no adverse signs of responding to internal stimuli. Dr. Murphy determined that the decedent did not meet the criteria for involuntary commitment. Between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on December 28, 2013, the decedent was discharged from UHP. He then traveled on foot to at least two restaurants where employees reportedly observed him acting erratically, resulting in a call to police. However, the responding officers did not take the decedent into custody. Thereafter, the decedent continued traveling on foot outside of the city limits where he was struck by an automobile and killed in the roadway at approximately 11:06 p.m.

         Petitioner "attempted to commence" the civil action before the circuit court by filing a complaint on December 22, 2015, alleging medical malpractice by respondents.[1] However, he did not provide a pre-suit notice required by West Virginia Code § 55-7B-6, to respondents prior to filing this suit. In the complaint, petitioner alleged that UHP was believed to be an independent contractor providing psychological and psychoanalytic services to patients at West Virginia University Medical Corp. d/b/a University Health Care; that respondent Dr. Murphy was employed as a physician at UHP; and that Murphy was assigned as the attending provider of medical services by UHP. The complaint also alleged that Dr. Murphy had a duty to determine whether the decedent was likely to cause serious harm to himself and was critical of decisions Dr. Murphy made regarding prescription medications for the decedent. Petitioner alleged that both UHP and Dr. Murphy failed to perform their duties owed to the decedent by discharging him, which proximately caused the decedent's death. Seven months after filing that complaint, petitioner provided a notice of claim on or about August 8, 2016, for this complaint. That notice of claim asserted that "[t]he Statement of The Theory or Theories of Liability upon which a cause of action may be based, will be specifically set forth in detail in a forthcoming screening certificate of merit." It also incorporated the "Notice of Medical Malpractice Claim filed on October 24, 2014, " which was filed in the previously dismissed action. However, petitioner did not serve respondents with such screening certificate of merit or even a statement of intent to provide such certificate within sixty days of the notice of claim before filing the complaint to initiate the action. As of April 17, 2017, petitioner had not served a screening certificate of merit for this action.

         UHP filed a motion to dismiss the underlying action. In petitioner's response to that motion, it attached what the circuit court characterized as "an alleged certificate of merit" as an exhibit. However, that certificate of merit was created and produced approximately eleven months after the filing of the complaint. On February 3, 2017, the circuit court granted UHP's motion to dismiss. Petitioner filed a motion to alter or amend that memorandum opinion, pursuant to Rule 59(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. By order entered April 17, 2017, the circuit court denied that motion.

         In that order, the circuit court concluded that petitioner's complaint

falls squarely under the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act . . . and all of its requirements. . . These alleged breaches of duty [by respondents] relate to complex matters outside of the common knowledge of lay jurors as the Complaint is based upon the medical issues addressed and decisions reached by Dr. Murphy on medication provision, delayed provision, withdrawal symptoms, suicidal ideations, and involuntary committals.

         It further determined that Dr. Murphy's decisions regarding the decedent's prescription medications and his determination that the decedent was not a threat to himself or others involved complex medical issues beyond the common knowledge or understanding of lay persons. The circuit court pointed out that despite petitioner's previously filed civil action being dismissed for failure to comply with the Medical Professional Liability Act ("MPLA") requirement to serve a screening certificate of merit, he still alleged that a screening certificate of merit is not needed in this action because the action "is based on well-established legal theory of liability which does not require expert testimony supporting a breach of the applicable standard of care."

         In that order, the circuit court also rejected petitioner's contention that the "common knowledge doctrine" applied. It found that the three-factor test promulgated in Wilhelm v. State Traffic Safety Comm., 185 A.2d 715 (Md. 1962), and applied in Galloway v. Horne Concrete Construction, 524 Fed.Appx. 865 (4th Cir. 2013), was inapplicable as an improper attempt to establish that the medical issues and decisions at issue here are not "complex medical issues." Thereafter, it concluded that petitioner's complaint involves a "complex medical issue" requiring expert medical testimony. The circuit court specifically held that because petitioner's complaint

falls squarely under the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act and involves a "complex medical issue" for which expert testimony is required, a pre-suit screening certificate was required in this matter in order to comply with the MPLA and its statutory purposes. . . Under these facts, there is no basis to extend or toll the Statute of Limitations.

         The circuit court also stated that its order dismissing the prior civil action instructed petitioner that a screening certificate of merit was necessary for the allegations within that complaint and noted that the complaint in the instant matter is identical to the prior case. Thus, it concluded that petitioner's failure to comply with the MPLA's pre-suit requirements deprived the circuit court of subject matter jurisdiction over petitioner's underlying claims and that subject matter jurisdiction could not be waived.

         In addition, Dr. Murphy filed a motion to dismiss on October 18, 2016, citing the absence of subject matter jurisdiction over petitioner's claim. On February 7, 2017, the court granted Dr. Murphy's motion and dismissed petitioner's case against him with prejudice. In that order, the circuit court cited petitioner's failure to provide a screening certificate of merit prior to filing his complaint and concluded that collateral estoppel precluded him from re-litigating this issue. On February 17, 2017, petitioner filed a motion to alter or amend that February 3, 2017, dismissal order. By order entered on April 17, 2017, the circuit court denied that motion, noting that in refiling his complaint in the second action petitioner or his counsel "knowingly and intentionally disregarded the clear language of the prior Memorandum Opinion and Order as well as the language of W.Va. Code ยง 55-7B-6(a)-(b)." It also found that ...


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