Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Dueling Decisions: The Wrongful Death Clock Clangs Twice on the Same Day

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Dueling Decisions: The Wrongful Death Clock Clangs Twice on the Same Day

Article excerpt

Boland v. Saint Luke's Health System, Inc., 471 S.W.3d 703 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).

I. INTRODUCTION

"Hard cases ... are apt to introduce bad law." (1) This maxim concerning hard cases is an apt description of what may be a first in the Supreme Court of Missouri's history: dueling decisions issued on the exact same day. (2) On August 18, 2015, the court issued contradictory opinions centered on the statutory interpretation of the wrongful death statute of limitations. (3) Both cases display polar opposite outcomes to the question of whether fraudulent concealment by tortious defendants defeats meritorious claims brought beyond a three-year statute of limitations in wrongful death cases.

Two contradictory lines of reasoning have developed in Missouri wrongful death causes of action. (4) The clashing decisions demonstrate the collision of strict interpretation and liberal construction and serve to illuminate the difficulty that dominates the issue. In Boland v. Saint Luke's Health Systems, Inc., the court applied strict construction interpretation standards to bar the plaintiffs from filing a wrongful death suit due to time limitations. (5) Conversely, the court in Beisly v. Perigo applied a liberal construction standard and injected a judicially-created common law maxim, equitable estoppel, to bar the defense of a statutory time limitation when the defendants engaged in fraudulent concealment. (6)

Even though the contrary opinions were factually dissimilar, (7) the hearts of both cases beat identically in that the defendants allegedly employed intentional and fraudulent concealment of the facts, which made it impossible for the plaintiffs to bring their respective wrongful death suits within the statute of limitations. Both cases held that a cause of action for wrongful death was a "purely" statutory creation. (8) Both cases attempted to decipher the intent and plain language of the legislature (9) so as to untangle fraudulent concealment entwined in the hands of the wrongful death clock in order to properly determine when time started or accrued (10) and when time should freeze or toll. (11) Both cases were also closely decided by a 4-3 majority. (12) However, the Beisly decision was only made possible due to the recusal of a Supreme Court of Missouri judge and the participation of a Special Judge from the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District. (13) For purposes of this Note, Boland will be the focus. (14)

Part II of this Note provides the facts and holding in Boland. Part III presents the legal background of Boland, discusses both the statutory and common law origins of wrongful death causes of action, and explores Missouri's unique history of wrongful death statutory interpretation. Part IV analyzes the rationale of the Boland court's return to the strict interpretation standard of days past. Finally, Part V discusses the ramifications of the court's decision and explores why the court should have acknowledged wrongful death claims that ascended from common law.

II. FACTS AND HOLDING

Five people seeking treatment at a Chillicothe, Missouri hospital died in 2002. (15) The family members alleged a rogue nurse (16) employed by the hospital was responsible for the deaths. (17) The nurse, Jennifer Hall, (18) purportedly dosed the patients with lethal amounts of unneeded medication (19) and, therefore, caused the decedents' deaths. (20) A minimum of nine suspicious deaths and eighteen suspicious "codes" (21) were attributed to the nurse. (22)

Dr. Cal Greenlaw became suspicious when a patient in the emergency room suddenly "coded" for cardiovascular collapse, and Dr. Greenlaw could not explain "the patient's unusual blood sugar/insulin events." (23) This event, combined with Dr. Greenlaw's knowledge of two previous suspicious incidents, led the doctor to voice concerns to the hospital administration twice. (24) The doctor's concerns were met with a denial of the problem, an admonishment to remain silent, and a command to abandon the issue out of fear this news would affect hospital enrollment. …

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