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Appellate Court Holds Louisiana Prisoner’s Medical Malpractice Claim May Proceed

by David M. Reutter

Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal held on May 23, 2019 that a prisoner who filed grievances and a lawsuit concerning his medical treatment “exercised reasonable diligence to the best of his ability to determine if something was wrong with him.” Under the circumstances of the case, the appellate court found his State Medical Review Panel (MRP) request was filed within one year of finding he may have been the victim of medical malpractice.

The ruling came after the trial court dismissed a lawsuit filed by state prisoner Cornelius Wilson, finding he had failed to timely file an MRP request. Louisiana law provides for a specified period in which to bring medical malpractice claims. LA. R.S. 9:5628(A) sets forth two prescriptive limits applicable to such claims: one year from the date of the alleged act or the date of discovery, and a three-year limitation from the date of the alleged act, omission or neglect if the negligence was not immediately apparent.

Prescription commences when a plaintiff obtains actual or constructive knowledge of facts indicating to a reasonable person that he or she is the victim of a tort. The ultimate issue in cases like Wilson’s is “the reasonableness of the patient’s action or inaction, in light of his education, intelligence, the severity of the symptoms, and the nature of the defendant’s conduct.”

The appellate court noted that while Wilson was at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in February 2015, he began losing his voice and had throat congestion. He was treated intermittently by three contract doctors: Dr. Rani Whitfield, Dr. Michael Stuart and Dr. Charles Bridges. They continued the same treatment from that time until August 31, 2015; then, Dr. Stuart recommended a review by an ENT specialist. That review never occurred.

Wilson was transferred to the state prison system in October or November, and on February 29, 2016, a specialist, Dr. Rachel Barry, discovered a large tumor that was subsequently diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma cancer. A total removal of his larynx was required, and he filed his MRP request on September 20, 2016.

The trial court held his request was not made within one year of the alleged malpractice, and dismissed Wilson’s lawsuit. The Court of Appeal found that dismissal was “manifestly erroneous,” noting it was reasonable to conclude Wilson was not “aware that he may have been a victim of a tort until February 29, 2016, when Dr. Barry discovered the large tumor on his left vocal cord.” The Court also said the case must be viewed in light of Wilson’s status as a prisoner, as he “was without the ability to schedule appointments with a specialist or seek a second opinion and had to rely solely on the medical services provided to him by the parish prison.” The trial court’s order of dismissal was reversed; costs on appeal were taxed to the defendants. See: Medical Review Panel v. Whitfield, 2019 La. App. LEXIS 914 (2019). 

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Related legal case

Medical Review Panel v. Whitfield