Hennepin County District Court File No. WD0118095
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Stoneburner, Judge,
and Minge, Judge.
Under Minnesota law, a cause of action for medical malpractice generally accrues when the physician's treatment for a particular condition ceases, subject to an exception for a single act or omission. In the unusual circumstance in which the injury does not occur until after the treatment ceases, the cause of action accrues at the time of the injury.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lansing, Judge
The district court determined that the medical-malpractice statute of limitations barred this wrongful-death action. Decedent's trustee appeals, contending that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a cause of action accrues and that the cause of action did not accrue in 1993, when decedent received the allegedly negligent medical advice, but in 2000, when decedent first suffered injury. Because a cause of action cannot accrue until injury occurs, and because the record is undisputed that decedent sustained no injury arising from the alleged negligence until he collapsed in September 2000, we reverse and remand.
This case involves a dispute over whether the statute of limitations operates to bar a cause of action in a medical-malpractice, wrongful-death action brought by Lisa Broek, the trustee for and widow of Alan Uetz. Uetz died at age thirty-nine after suffering cardiac arrest while playing racquetball. As a teenager, Uetz had been diagnosed with a ventricle septal defect (VSD), an abnormal heart condition in which there is an opening or defect in the septum, the muscular wall separating the two ventricles of the heart. He was monitored for that condition by physicians at the University of Iowa, who placed no restrictions on his activities. In 1991, he had an echocardiogram in Iowa, which revealed that rather than VSD, he suffered from idiopathic hypertrophic subaortic stenosis (IHSS), a heart-muscle disease of unknown cause that is typically inherited.
Shortly after this diagnosis Uetz moved from Iowa to the Twin Cities where he was seen at Park Nicollet Medical Center. Uetz reported in a June 1992 visit to Park Nicollet that he had no chest pain or trouble breathing and that he had taken medication for about nine months but had stopped because it gave him severe heartburn. Two months later, Uetz saw Dr. Phillip Ranheim at Park Nicollet. Ranheim noted that Uetz had been treated with Lopressor, which Uetz could not tolerate because of stomach distress and pain. Ranheim reported that Uetz was very active, playing basketball, racquetball, jogging, walking, and exercising regularly two to three times a week without any cardiac symptoms. Ranheim recommended that Uetz receive screening laboratory studies and another echocardiogram to establish "a baseline."
Uetz had the echocardiogram on February 12, 1993. On February 19, Ranheim wrote to Uetz, stating that the echocardiogram was "really very satisfactory" and showed "nothing * * * alarming." Ranheim continued, "From this echocardiogram, I would not feel that you should restrict any of your activities." He recommended that Uetz return for blood tests, concluding, "We should see you every couple of years to make sure that everything stays stable. If you have problems and want to come in before that time, just give my office a call."
Uetz did not return to Dr. Ranheim, nor did he follow up with any other cardiologist. On September 5, 2000, while playing racquetball, Uetz suffered cardiac arrest. He died about three weeks later without regaining consciousness.
Uetz's widow, Lisa Broek, initiated this medical-malpractice, wrongful-death action on March 4, 2002. Park Nicollet and Ranheim moved for summary judgment, contending that the action was time-barred by the statute of limitations applicable to wrongful-death claims.
In opposition to the summary-judgment motion, Broek submitted an expert affidavit from Dr. Barry Maron, Director of the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Center of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, stating Maron's opinion that, at the time Uetz was seen at Park Nicollet, it was known that "vigorous physical activity with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy [which includes the condition of IHSS] can trigger ventricular fibrillation and lead to sudden death, even when the condition is otherwise stable." Maron stated that based on his review of the medical records, his opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty was that Uetz suffered no ...