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Schleger v. State

Court of Appeals of Utah

May 3, 2018

Gary Schleger and Pamela Schleger, Appellants,
State of Utah and Utah State Hospital, Appellees.

          Fourth District Court, Spanish Fork Department The Honorable M. James Brady No. 160300033

          George L. Chingas Jr., Attorney for Appellants

          Sean D. Reyes and Peggy E. Stone, Attorneys for Appellees

          Judge Gregory K. Orme authored this Opinion, in which Judges Kate A. Toomey and Ryan M. Harris concurred.

          ORME, JUDGE

         ¶1 Gary and Pamela Schleger appeal the district court's decision dismissing their medical malpractice and wrongful death action against the State and the Utah State Hospital (collectively, the State). The court concluded that, while the Schlegers had successfully complied with the prelitigation claims-review requirements of the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act (the HCMA), their suit was nevertheless time-barred under the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah (the GIA). The Schlegers maintain that the court erred in its interpretation of the applicable statutes. We disagree and therefore affirm.


         ¶2 This appeal comes to us in the wake of the tragic events surrounding the death of the Schlegers' twenty-nine-year-old daughter (Decedent). In May 2013, after a long battle with mental illness, Decedent was admitted to the Utah State Hospital for long-term inpatient treatment. Upon her arrival, she was immediately placed on suicide watch. Soon thereafter, Decedent's roommate alerted hospital staff that Decedent had begun making strange noises. Rushing into Decedent's room, staff members found her sitting next to her bed, with shoelaces wrapped tightly around her neck. Although staff members acted quickly in an attempt to save her, she had already lost consciousness by the time they managed to cut the laces off. Sadly, after spending three days on life support, Decedent was pronounced dead.

         ¶3 Following Decedent's death, the Schlegers decided to assert claims against the State for medical malpractice and wrongful death. Given that they wished to pursue a lawsuit against the government, however, they could not file their action without first satisfying certain procedural prerequisites arising under the GIA. Thus, consistent with section 63G-7-401 of the GIA, the Schlegers served a notice of their claims on the Utah Attorney General[1] on May 21, 2014, the last possible day in the one-year period in which they could do so. When the State failed to respond by July 20, 2014, the Schlegers' claims were deemed denied by operation of statute.[2] See Utah Code Ann. § 63G-7-403(1)(b) (LexisNexis 2016). At that point, barring a tolling of the GIA's limitations period, the Schlegers had one year in which to commence their action against the State lest they lose their right to sue. See id. § 63G-7-403(2)(b).

         ¶4 But as of late July 2014, the Schlegers still had several procedural hurdles to surmount before they could file suit. Specifically, because they sought to assert claims for medical malpractice, they were required to comply with the prelitigation claims-review requirements set out in the HCMA. They did not begin this process until May 19, 2015-some ten months after the State was deemed to have denied their claims-when they served the State with a notice of their intent to sue for medical malpractice. See id. § 78B-3-412(1)(a) (LexisNexis 2012). Several weeks later, on July 17, 2015, the Schlegers took the next step in the claims-review process by submitting a formal request for prelitigation panel review to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (the Division). See id. § 78B-3-416(2)(a). On January 6, 2016, the Division provided the Schlegers with a certificate of compliance. See id. § 78B-3-418(1)(a)-(b). With that, the Division documented that it had finished its review and that the HCMA's prelitigation claims-review process was complete, leaving the Schlegers free to sue on their malpractice claim.

         ¶5 The Schlegers then brought this action in district court, see id. § 78B-3-412(1)(b), nearly two months later, on March 4, 2016. In response, the State filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the Schlegers' complaint was untimely under the GIA's one-year statute of limitations.[3] After hearing oral argument on the motion, the district court agreed with the State and dismissed the Schlegers' suit with prejudice. The Schlegers appeal.


         ¶6 The Schlegers argue that the district court erred in concluding that the GIA's one-year statute of limitations is not subject to the HCMA's provision for tolling limitations statutes during the prelitigation claims-review process. "Issues of statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review for correctness, " without according deference to the district court's decision. In ...

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