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Boland v. Saint Luke's Health System, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

June 19, 2018

SALLY BOLAND, SHERRI LYNN HARPER, DAVID C. GANN, JENNIRAE LITTRELL, and HELEN PITTMAN, Appellants,
v.
SAINT LUKE'S HEALTH SYSTEM, INC.; SAINT LUKE'S HOSPITAL OF CHILLICOTHE f/k/a THE GRAND RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM CORPORATION d/b/a HEDRICK MEDICAL CENTER; and COMMUNITY HEALTH GROUP f/k/a HEALTH MIDWEST, Respondents.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Livingston County, Missouri The Honorable Daren L. Adkins, Judge

          Before Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, and Anthony Rex Gabbert and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judges

          OPINION

          Mark D. Pfeiffer, Judge

         This appeal addresses the peculiar circumstance in which deceit by a tortfeasor is discovered before such intentional deceit has harmed the victims of the tortfeasor's wrongdoing. The question before this court is what impact this scenario has on principles of res judicata and any applicable statute of limitations. As the learned jurist, Judge Richard Posner, once noted: "Damages are for people who have been harmed. You cannot seek an award of damages for a fraud, therefore, before the fraud has harmed you ...." Midwest Commerce Banking Co. v. Elkhart City Centre, 4 F.3d 521, 526 (7th Cir. 1993) (emphasis added).

         Current Procedural History and Summary of Our Ruling

         In this consolidated appeal, Ms. Sally Boland, Ms. Sherri Lynn Harper, Mr. David C. Gann, Ms. Jennirae Littrell, and Ms. Helen Pittman (collectively, "Appellants") appeal from the ruling of the Circuit Court of Livingston County, Missouri ("trial court"), granting summary judgment in favor of Saint Luke's Health Systems, Inc., Saint Luke's Hospital of Chillicothe, and Community Health Group (collectively, "Hospital") in five separate actions for fraud. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with our ruling today.

         The First Lawsuits

         The history of litigation between the parties commenced with Appellants' 2010-11 lawsuits ("First Lawsuits"). Between October 2010 and January 2011, Appellants filed five separate (though essentially identical) petitions against Hospital, "arguing they were entitled to damages under Missouri's wrongful death statute, section 537.080." Boland v. Saint Luke's Health System, Inc., 471 S.W.3d 703, 707 (Mo. banc 2015) ("Boland I"). More specifically, the First Lawsuits alleged that Hospital was vicariously liable when, in 2002, its employee intentionally killed relatives of Appellants, [1] for whom each of the Appellants was a statutorily authorized person entitled to pursue a wrongful death claim against Hospital. Hospital filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, arguing Appellants' claims were time-barred by section 537.100's[2] three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims, which accrued upon the decedents' deaths in 2002.

         Appellants responded to the motions by invoking longstanding Missouri precedent, Howell v. Murphy, 844 S.W.2d 42 (Mo. App. W.D. 1992), which declared that fraudulent concealment by the defendant of material facts supporting a wrongful death cause of action equitably tolled "the limitation set forth in § 537.100 . . . until the plaintiffs could, by reasonable diligence, ascertain that they had an action." Id. at 47.[3]

         The trial court granted Hospital's motions for judgment on the pleadings. After accepting transfer from this court, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgments. The Supreme Court held in BolandI that "Howell is in error" and its rationale for equitable tolling of the section 537.100 statute of limitations "should no longer be followed." Boland I, 471 S.W.3d at 709. Instead, the court noted that wrongful death claims accrue at death, and fraudulent concealment does not toll or trigger an exception to the three-year statute of limitations. Id. at 705. Though the Boland I court concluded that Appellants were without a remedy for wrongful death claims, the court expressly noted that it was not commenting on whether Appellants possessed "other viable remedies at law'' Id. at 713 (emphasis added).

         The Second Lawsuits

         In October 2016, Appellants filed new petitions asserting other remedies at law against Hospital ("Second Lawsuits"). These petitions alleged that after the death of the relevant decedents, Hospital was vicariously liable when its employees fraudulently misrepresented the true nature of the 2002 deaths in an intentional effort to mislead Appellants and prevent the timely filing of wrongful death claims.[4]

         Hospital filed motions for summary judgment based on principles of res judicata, or claim preclusion, and the five-year statute of limitations for fraud. The trial court sustained the motions. This consolidated appeal follows.

         The Harm[5]

         Prior to the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling in Boland I and State ex rel. Beisly v. Perigo, 469 S.W.3d 434 (Mo. banc 2015), controlling case precedent from this Court declared that, in wrongful death claims, fraudulent conduct by the wrongdoer in concealing the evidence necessary to assert a wrongful death claim equitably tolled the statute of limitations period for asserting a claim for damages under the wrongful death statute. Howell, 844 S.W.2d at 47. Hence, though Appellants in the present case had previously asserted wrongful death claims in excess of the three years prescribed by the statute of limitations for such claims, § 537.100, they relied upon the Howell precedent to assert: the fraudulent conduct of Hospital had concealed the evidence necessary to pursue the wrongful death claims; Hospital could not benefit from its fraudulent concealment; and the statute of limitations period had thus been equitably tolled.

         In Boland I, however, our Supreme Court opined that "Howell is in error" and its rationale for equitable tolling of the section 537.100 statute of limitations "should no longer be followed." Boland I, 471 S.W.3d at 709. Thus, the majority opinion[6] of the Supreme Court declared that since Appellants had filed their claims for wrongful death after three years from the death of the relevant decedents, their wrongful death claims were barred by section 537.100. Specifically, in Boland I the court stated:

Without commenting on whether the plaintiffs have other viable remedies at law, the conclusion that the plaintiffs are without a remedy for wrongful death is a difficult one.[7] . . . The judgments [dismissing plaintiffs' wrongful death claims] of the trial courts are affirmed.

471 S.W.3d at 713 (emphasis added).

         Conversely, on the same day that the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Boland I, the Supreme Court also handed down its ruling in State ex rel. Beisly v. Perigo. In Beisly, as in Boland I, the deaths of the decedents were known more than three years from the filing of the wrongful death claims; but due to the fraudulent misconduct of the tortfeasors, the true nature of the wrongful deaths could not be ascertained within the section 537.100 statute of limitations period. Beisly, 469 S.W.3d at 436. Again, the Supreme Court concluded that the legal principle enunciated in Howell, that the section 537.100 statute of ...


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