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Additional New Opinion Released

July 29, 2010

Thanks to commenter J. Clifford Head for pointing out that the Supreme Court also released a new civil opinion as they finished the April term late on July 23, 2010.  Unfortunately, the practice of law got in the way of catching this opinion release on the day it occurred.  Details on the case and the decision are below.

S10A0258. DEEN et al. v. STEVENS et al.

This direct appeal originated from Glynn County and involves the application of the statute of limitations in Georgia’s medical malpractice laws to a lawsuit against a dentist. Deen’s husband sought treatment from a dentist in July 2005 for an infection around a tooth. The dentist referred him to a specialist for a root canal and prescribed an antibiotic. Deen’s husband could not afford the root canal, and took no action. A month later, he collapsed and the emergency room doctors concluded he suffered severe injuries as the result of a brain hemorrhage apparently related to the tooth infection, causing severe brain damage.

Three years later, Deen filed a complaint against the dentist and the dental practice, alleging professional negligence caused the injuries because less expensive treatment options were not offered and insufficient antibiotics were prescribed. The practice filed a motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, because the timeline for a medical malpractice claim of two years is not tolled by a mental disability. Deen argued that the two-year statute for simple negligence claims applies, and was tolled by the mental disability. Deen argued that because Deen’s husband had no appointed guardian until May 2008, there was a tolling of the statute until that time.

The trial court found in favor of the dental practice, finding that the two-year statute of limitations for medical malpractice applied and was not tolled by the mental disability. Deen appealed, arguing the distinction between mentally incapacitated adults in medical malpractice and non-medical malpractice claims is both unreasonable and unconstitutional as a violation of equal protection. The dental practice argues that the statute has been upheld in the past, and that Deen’s claims involved professional malpractice, not simple negligence.

The Supreme Court granted the interlocutory application in 2009, and heard oral argument on the case on February 8, 2010.

On July 23, 2010, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court in a 5-2 decision (Hunstein and Benham, dissenting).  Writing for the Court, Justice Nahmias found there was no constitutional problem with the lack of tolling on the two-year statute of limitations under a rational basis review, accepting the Eleventh Circuit’s similar analysis in a related case.  The Court did not address whether simple negligence claims related to medical issues are subject to the two-year statute, but instead decided the simple negligence claims based on the summary judgment standard.  Writing in dissent, Chief Justice Hunstein would have found the lack of tolling on the two-year statute as unconstitutional under the rational basis test of the Equal Protection clause.

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