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Barbara J. Lightfoot, Administrator of the Estate of Donald L. v. Catholic Health Initiatives- Iowa Corp.

April 10, 2013

BARBARA J. LIGHTFOOT, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD L. PETERSON, AND BARBARA J. LIGHTFOOT, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CATHOLIC HEALTH INITIATIVES- IOWA CORP., D/B/A MERCY HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER, DES MOINES, IOWA, AND JOSE ANGEL, M.D., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Robert J. Blink, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vaitheswaran, P.J.

The plaintiff appeals from a district court ruling granting the defendants' motions for summary judgment. AFFIRMED.

Considered by Vaitheswaran, P.J., and Potterfield and Bower, JJ.

Barbara Lightfoot, administrator of her husband's estate, contends the district court erred in concluding her medical malpractice lawsuit against a hospital and physician was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings

Barbara Lightfoot's husband Donald Peterson was admitted to Mercy Hospital Medical Center, where he was treated by Dr. Jose Angel. Peterson died on July 25, 2009, after undergoing an emergency surgery to remove a gallstone.

Lightfoot filed a wrongful death action against Mercy and Dr. Angel on April 7, 2011, purportedly in her capacity as the administrator of her husband's estate. See Wendelin v. Russell, 147 N.W.2d 188, 191 (Iowa 1966) ("[A]ny right to damages for wrongful death accrues to the administrator of a decedent's estate, the surviving husband or wife having no standing to sue for same in an individual capacity."), overruled on other grounds by Lewis v. State, 256 N.W.2d 181, 189 (Iowa 1977). It soon became apparent that an estate had not been opened and, consequently, Lightfoot was not administrator of Peterson's estate at the time the lawsuit was filed. Lightfoot rectified the problem and obtained a letter of appointment on August 15, 2011.

The next day, she moved to substitute herself in her capacity as the estate's administrator and moved for leave to amend the petition to allege she was now the duly appointed administrator of Peterson's estate. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the two-year statute of limitations applicable to medical malpractice actions expired on July 25, 2011, two years after the date of Peterson's death. Because Lightfoot did not become administrator of the estate and did not move to substitute herself as duly appointed administrator until after July 25, 2011, they asserted Lightfoot's amended petition was time-barred. See Iowa Code § 614.1(9) (2011).

In response, Lightfoot conceded her substitution could not "relate back to the time of filing the petition," which was within the two-year limitations period. See Estate of Dyer v. Krug, 533 N.W.2d 221, 224 (Iowa 1995) ("The petition shows that at the time this action was commenced, [the plaintiff] did not have the capacity to sue. Therefore, this action did not toll the statute of limitations. Any later appointment will occur after the limitations period has run . . . . [T]hat appointment will not relate back.").*fn1 She argued, instead, that the two-year period only began to run when she discovered the wrongful act that caused her husband's death. That date, she asserted, was eleven to eighteen months after his death. Accordingly, she urged the court to find that her substitution motion and motion to amend were timely, and summary judgment for the defendants was not appropriate.

The district court disagreed with Lightfoot and ruled as follows:

The statute of limitations expired on July 25, 2011, at the latest, two years after the date Donald Peterson died. Because she did not open an estate and was not appointed administrator prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations, she had no authority to act as administrator of the estate.

. . . It is too late to now amend the Petition.

The court granted the defendants' summary judgment motions. ...


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