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Shadrick v. Coker - 963 S.W.2d 726 (Tenn. 1998)

Rule:

A plaintiff may not delay filing suit until all the injurious effects and consequences of an alleged wrong are actually known to the plaintiff. The statute of limitations is not tolled until the plaintiff actually knows the specific type of legal claim he or she has. Rather, the statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff knows or in the exercise of reasonable care and diligence should know that an injury has been sustained as a result of wrongful or tortious conduct by the defendant. It is knowledge of facts sufficient to put a plaintiff on notice that an injury has been sustained which is crucial. Such knowledge includes not only an awareness of the injury, but also the tortious origin or wrongful nature of that injury. 

Facts:

Plaintiff Donald Shadrick injured his back at work in Dec. 1988. He was treated for this injury by the defendant Wesley L. Coker, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon practicing in Nashville. On March 12, 1990, after three previous surgeries performed by Dr. Coker failed to alleviate Shadrick's back pain, Dr. Coker performed a laminectomy and disc excision. When Shadrick woke up after the surgery, he was told by Dr. Coker that the screws had been put in his back and that the screws were "routine treatment" for the type of surgery he had undergone; Shadrick claimed that he was not before surgery that screws would be placed in his back. The surgery was performed at defendant hospital. Unfortunately Shadrick's pain worsened. An x-ray revealed that one of the screws had broken on the same side he was having pain. Shadrick underwent surgery that same month to repair the broken screw. For over three years following the removal of the screws, Shadrick continued to have pain in his back. Shadrick continued to see Dr. Coker for treatment. At no time did Dr. Coker attribute Shadrick's continued pain to the installation of the pedicle screws. Due to the severity of his back pain, Shadrick has been unable to work. On Dec. 17, 1993, Shadrick saw a television program in which a story was done on pedicle screws. It was from this program that Shadrick first learned that pedicle screws were experimental, that they had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the spine, and that such screws had been found to cause a number of problems in patients. Shadrick, joined by his wife, Valerie Shadrick, filed suit in Tennessee state court against Dr. Coker and the hospital alleging medical malpractice, lack of informed consent and battery. The case was filed 4 years and 9 months after the surgery. Dr. Coker filed a motion for summary judgment. He asserted in the motion that the suit was barred by the three-year statute of repose and the one-year statute of limitations. The trial court granted Dr. Coker's motion for summary judgment. The court of appeals' reversed, holding that there were disputed issues of material fact as to when Shadrick should have discovered his cause of action and whether there was fraudulent concealment on the part of Dr. Coker. Dr. Coker appealed.

Issue:

Was summary judgment proper?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court affirmed the appellate court's decision, holding that disputed issues of material fact existed regarding when the statute of limitations began to run and whether the fraudulent concealment exception to the statute of repose applied. Specifically, the court held that: (1) Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116(a)(1)(2) and (3) provided a one year statute of limitations and a three year statute of repose; (2) the statute of limitations was tied to the discovery of the wrong but the statute of repose was not; (3) the statute of repose could be tolled by fraudulent concealment; (4) fraudulent concealment could consist of silence in the face of risks associated with the use of pedicle screws and their experimental nature; (5) the statute of limitations began to run when Shadrick and wife first became aware of the risks associated with the pedicle screws, and; (6) the existence of genuine fact issues concerning the statutes of limitation and repose precluded summary judgment.

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