Medical Employer May Still Be Sued for Malpractice Even Though Employee’s Claims Dismissed on Statute of Limitations Grounds

By Michael Zerres

In a recent Appellate Division decision, the Court held that a Hospital and Medical Group that employed a physician, who was dismissed from the case on statute of limitations grounds, may still be sued for medical malpractice on a vicarious liability theory.

In Walker v. Choudhary (A-1425-10T1 – Approved for Publication), a deceased patient’s family sued a medical practice group, hospital and four physicians for malpractice. One of the doctors moved to dismiss the complaint based upon an Affidavit of Non-Involvement. The motion was granted and plaintiff moved to add the correct doctor as a defendant. Subsequently, as more than 2 years had passed since the amendment to add the new doctor, and, because plaintiff had not acted diligently in moving to amend, the newly named doctor was dismissed from the case on statute of limitations grounds. The newly named physician had also been employed by the defendant South Jersey Emergency Room Physicians P.C. group. South Jersey Healthcare owned the defendant South Jersey Regional Medical Center, and, it was also contended that the newly added doctor would also have been an employee of the defendant South Jersey Healthcare under the principles of apparent authority and respondeat superior.

The defendant physician group and hospital also moved to dismiss the case against them, as the complaint against the late named doctor had already been dismissed on the statute of limitations grounds. The trial court granted the group and hospital’s motions, stating that since the doctor in question had been dismissed on statute of limitation grounds, that such a determination was an “adjudication on the merits.” As such, the trial court ruled, that determination was “res judicata” as to the vicarious claims against the group and hospital.

The Appellate Division concluded otherwise finding that “an employer can be subject to suit for the negligent actions of its employee under the principle of respondeat superior even though the employee is dismissed because the claims against her or him were filed outside of the statute of limitations.” As a result, the plaintiff’s malpractice and wrongful death claims were reinstated against the hospital and physician group.

This decision will have importance in claims against the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (“UMDNJ”), a public entity, where claims against its employees must be noticed within 90 days of the event, and, in extraordinary circumstances, within at least one year from the event. Where a claim is timely filed as to UMDNJ, but a claim against its employee is brought outside the notice of claim time limitations, the claim against UMDNJ will still survive.