What Affect Does Indiana’s Two Year Statute of Limitations Have On Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act?
On April 3, 2006, two weeks after her obstetrician, Dr. Dobbs, performed a cesarean section and tubal ligation on her, Ann Miller suffered a massive stroke that left her with permanent injuries. Nearly two years later, on March 18, 2008, the Millers’ attorney sent a proposed medical malpractice complaint to the Indiana Department of Insurance by certified mail. The $7.00 in statutory filing and processing fees were omitted from this mailing, but the proposed complaint was nevertheless file-stamped March 18. On March 31, 2008, the Millers filed their complaint against Dr. Dobbs and his medical group. Meanwhile, the Department discovered the fee omission and sent the Millers’ attorney a letter stating that the mandatory fees needed to be sent within 30 days and that the complaint would “not be considered filed with the Department until the filing fees … [were] received.” Similar warnings appear in the Department’s proposed complaint procedures and on the Department’s website. The Millers’ attorney received the letter on Friday, April 4, 2008 and sent a check to the Department by first-class mail that same day. On Monday, April 7, the Department received the check and re-file-stamped the proposed complaint April 7. The proceedings in the trial court were stayed pending completion of the Medical Review Panel opinion, which was issued in July 2010. The defendants subsequently raised an affirmative defense of the statute of limitations and moved for summary judgment on that basis. In May 2011, the Millers moved to strike that motion, arguing the defendants waived it by failing to raise it before the Medical Review Panel issued its opinion. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and denied the Millers’ motion to strike.
On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the Millers’ proposed complaint was timely filed. The defendants contend the Millers’ proposed complaint was untimely because, although the Department received the complaint itself before the end of the statutory period, it did not receive the requisite filing and processing fees until April 7, three days after the statutory period ended. Our reading of the relevant statute, however, leads us to the opposite conclusion. According to the Statute of Limitations chapter of our Medical Malpractice Act, a proposed complaint is considered filed when a copy of the proposed complaint is delivered or mailed by registered or certified mail to the commissioner. The Millers’ proposed complaint was mailed by certified mail on March 18, 2008. According to the statute, it is considered filed on that date. The statutory period did not expire until April 4, 2008. Thus, the Millers’ proposed complaint was timely filed with the Department. Both the overall structure of the MMA and public policy considerations support our conclusion today. First, the filing and processing fees are located in a different chapter of the statute entitled “Commencement of a Medical Malpractice Action.” The language of that provision also suggests that a proposed complaint is considered filed regardless of whether the required fees are submitted with it; the fees accompany the filed complaint, but they are not actually part of it. Second, Indiana law has long incorporated a strong preference for deciding cases on their merits rather than disposing of them via procedural technicalities. Accordingly, we have stated that our appellate rules, including filing fees, exist to facilitate the orderly presentation and disposition of appeals and prevent the confusing and awkward situation of having the trial and appellate courts simultaneously review the correctness of a judgment, in contrast to the statute of limitations, which is intended “to spare courts from stale claims … and to insure that parties are given formal and seasonable notice that a claim is being asserted against them.” The Millers’ claim was not stale; the actual filing of the lawsuit in the Dearborn Superior Court on March 31, 2008, was within the statute of limitations. And as we have said before there are numerous methods by which to enforce effectively the payment of filing fees other than by couching such enforcement in jurisdictional terms. Therefore, the trial court’s decision to dismiss the Millers’ claims as untimely is inconsistent with the structure of the Act and with our public policy. 991 N.E.2d 562