A woman underwent a bilateral tubal ligation via electrocautery, a sterilization procedure in which the fallopian tubes are physically obstructed by using an electrical current to pinch the tubes closed. Based on her discussions with the doctor who performed the procedure, the woman understood that the procedure was a permanent birth control method making the odds of becoming pregnant without prior surgical intervention extremely low. In fact, the doctor indicated that the purpose of performing the tubal ligation was permanent sterilization. At no time during subsequent visits did the doctor suggest that the woman undergo a procedure to ensure that the tubal ligation was performed properly or to determine that the fallopian tubes were closed. About two years after the procedure, the woman began a sexual relationship with a man. She became pregnant about six months into the relationship. She gave birth to the child and underwent a second bilateral tubal ligation. About a month later, the couple married.
Four years and four months after the first tubal ligation procedure, the couple sued the doctor who performed the first tubal ligation for breach of contract, loss of consortium, and medical malpractice. The doctor moved for summary judgment arguing the actions were barred by the statute of limitations. The doctor’s motion was supported by the affidavit of a medical expert, who indicated that at the time of the procedure there were two objective medical tests available that, if performed, would have shown whether her fallopian tubes were successfully obstructed as a result of the ligation procedure. Based on the availability of these tests, the doctor argued that the woman's medical malpractice action accrued on the date the surgery was performed, and since the couple did not file their complaint until four years and four months later, their claims were time-barred. The District Court of the Fourth Judicial District, Ada County, concluded that the medical malpractice claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations, as the wife suffered some damage that was objectively ascertainable at the time of the surgery.
The Supreme Court of Idaho affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissing the couple’s breach of contract and consortium claims, vacated the judgment dismissing the medical malpractice claim, and remanded in part. The court held that on the date of the wife's bilateral tubal ligation surgery any injury caused by the physician's alleged malpractice was not objectively ascertainable, the wife could not maintain a separate cause of action for breach of contract against the physician, and the husband could not maintain a cause of action for loss of consortium claim against the physician.
On the date of the wife's bilateral tubal ligation surgery any injury caused by the physician's alleged malpractice was not objectively ascertainable. To determine when a patient's cause of action for medical malpractice accrued courts apply the “objectively ascertainable” analysis to determine when a patient suffered some damage that was objectively ascertainable. In a negligence action, because the plaintiff must prove actual damage, the statute of limitations cannot begin to run until some damage has occurred as a result of the alleged malpractice. On the date of the woman's bilateral tubal ligation surgery any injury caused by the doctor's alleged malpractice was not objectively ascertainable, and thus the surgery did not trigger the two year medical malpractice limitations period. Even though the doctor's expert opined that there were two procedures that could have been performed to show the woman suffered damages as a result of the negligently performed surgery, her expert testified that the procedures identified by doctor's expert were invasive, painful, risky, and costly.
The wife could not maintain a separate cause of action for breach of contract against the physician. The court looked to the complaint to determine whether or not the gravamen of an action consisted of a breach of the contract, itself, or the duty imposed by law in relation to the manner of its performance. When the gravamen of the claim was based on the negligence of a health care professional, the plaintiff was precluded from bringing a contract claim. The gravamen of the woman's claims against the doctor were based the doctor's alleged failure to provide proper health care during tubal ligation surgery. The court concluded that the woman could not maintain a separate cause of action for breach of contract against the doctor.
The husband could not maintain a cause of action for loss of consortium claim against the physician. A claim for loss of consortium required a marital relationship. The claim for loss of consortium was a wholly derivative cause of action contingent upon a third party's tortious injury to a spouse. The husband was not married to the woman at the time of the surgery or at the time she became pregnant. Therefore, the woman was not his spouse at the time she was allegedly injured, so he could bring a consortium claim.
The Supreme Court of Idaho affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissing the couple’s breach of contract and consortium claims, vacated the judgment dismissing the medical malpractice claim, and remanded in part.
See: Conner v. Hodges, 2014 WL 4160125 (Idaho, August 22, 2014) (not designated for publication).