A woman underwent doctor-prescribed aquatic physical therapy. A physical therapist, that provided therapy to the patient, evaluated her ability to walk and to go up and down steps, and determined she did not have trouble walking. Generally, clinic patients were not assisted in leaving the clinic's exercise pool area unless they had a problem walking.
At the end of an aquatic physical therapy session, the physical therapist told the woman to leave the pool and go to the locker room to change. The patient followed the physical therapist’s direction.
The pool was above ground, which required the patient to navigate steps down from the pool to a tile floor in order to reach the locker room. The woman was not assisted in walking down the steps because her evaluation did not indicate she had a problem walking. On the tile floor was a large puddle of water. As the woman exited the pool, descended the steps, and stepped from the last step onto the puddle, she slipped and fell. She broke her right elbow and fractured her right forearm and wrist.
The patient filed a negligence suit against the physical therapy clinic and others. The District Court granted summary judgment to defendants on limitations grounds, and the patient appealed.
The Supreme Court of Nebraska held that the patient's suit was one for professional negligence, such that two-year limitations period for professional negligence suits applied. In determining whether the statute of limitations for professional negligence applies to a plaintiff's claim, the court must determine whether the defendant is a professional and was acting in a professional capacity in rendering the services upon which the claim is based.
To determine whether the defendant is a professional, courts consider several factors. A license strongly indicates a person is a professional, but that is not the only prerequisite. The preparation and training required to procure that license are also important factors. A college degree indicates such preparation and training, but a college degree itself is not required. In determining whether a particular act or service is professional in nature, the court must look to the nature of the act or service itself and the circumstances under which it was performed.
The court held that actions for damages arising out of the professional services provided by physical therapists are actions based on an alleged claim of negligence in providing professional services and are subject to two-year statute of limitations applicable to professional negligence suits. Applying that reasoning the court held that the patient’s negligence suit was one for professional negligence, and, thus two-year statute of limitations governing professional negligence suits applied, rather than four-year general four-year statute of limitations. The court reasoned that the patient's claims arose from her professional relationship with the physical therapist. The action accrued when patient slipped while descending from last step of aboveground pool. The physical therapist's direction to the patient to get out of the pool without assistance was part of the professional services that were being provided to her at the time she slipped and fell. Therefore, the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants on limitations grounds was affirmed.
See: Churchill v. Columbus Community Hosp., Inc., 285 Neb. 759, 2013 WL 1776746 (Neb. April 25, 2013).