Wyoming justices back doctor in negligence case ruling

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 11, 2011, 2:33pm

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Legal Newsline) -- The Wyoming Supreme Court last month ruled in favor of a doctor who left the state after negligently treating a patient.

The Court, in its March 31 opinion, upheld a district court's ruling and sided with Dr. Betty Walton, saying the statute of limitations had run out.

In Wyoming, the statute of limitations for a medical malpractice action is two years.

On Aug. 3, 2005, the patient, Rex Adams, received medical treatment from Dr. Mark Lea. On Aug. 11, 2005, he was treated by Dr. Kent Katz for complications associated with Lea's treatment.

Almost a week later, on Aug. 16, 2005, Adams was sent to the emergency room by his primary care physician because his condition worsened. He was treated by Walton.

While he was in the ER, he suffered a cardiac arrest and was subsequently transferred to another Utah hospital.

Adams' attorney, after reviewing the medical records of the doctors involved, determined there was no evidence of negligent medical treatment by Walton. Adams then filed a suit on Oct. 19, 2006 against only Lea and Katz.

It was only after Katz filed a designation of expert witnesses on March 21, 2008 -- including one who was to testify that Walton was negligent in her treatment of Adams and caused his injuries -- that Adams sought to name Walton in his lawsuit.

However, when Adams began looking for Walton, he discovered she was a "locum tenens," or temporary, physician who was not a Wyoming resident.

At some point after Aug. 16, 2005 -- the date of the alleged malpractice -- she had left the state to practice elsewhere. Eventually, she was found and on Aug. 21, 2008, Adams filed an amended complaint.

A district court granted summary judgment to Walton based on the running of the limitation period. It disagreed with Adams, who alleged the statute of limitations was tolled because the doctor had left the state and he could not find her to effectuate service of process.

The state's high court agreed with the lower court. Justice Michael Golden authored the five-page opinion.

"Adams argues the language of § 1-3-116 allows for the two-year limitation period of § 1-3-107 to be completely overridden should a potential defendant serendipitously be absent from the state," the Court wrote. "As our precedent discloses, this Court has never construed the language of § 1-3-116 so literally."

It added, "Adams did not file a legal action against Dr. Walton until more than three years after the cause of action accrued. The fact that Dr. Walton was out of state is not enough to invoke § 1-3-116, given the fact that Adams had no intention of bringing legal action against her within the limitation period."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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