Earlier this month the North Carolina Supreme Court issued its opinion in Vaughan v. Mashburn, an important case interpreting Rule 9(j), the special pleadings rule for medical malpractice actions.
Rule 9(j) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure requires plaintiffs filing medical malpractice complaints to include a specific allegation that the medical care and medical records have been reviewed by an expert who meets certain qualifications and who is willing to testify that there was a breach of the standard of care. If a plaintiff fails to include the Rule 9(j) language, the complaint “shall be dismissed.” This special pleading requirement does not apply to other types of malpractice or to ordinary negligence actions. The original aim of the rule was to reduce frivolous med mal litigation; but, as I have noted in the past, in its short life it has generated well over 100 published appellate opinions as courts have grappled with its undefined provisions, reconciled it with other procedural rules, and tried to determine when it does and does not apply.
Vaughan, the latest such case, centers on whether a party can invoke Rule of Civil Procedure 15 to amend defective language in a Rule 9(j) certification. Before filing her action, Ms. Vaughan had timely obtained the required expert review of her medical care and medical records. When her attorney filed the complaint, he included a Rule 9(j) certification, but it was defective in the following sense: it certified that the medical care had been reviewed, but it failed to also state that the medical records had been reviewed. The medical “records” language had been added to Rule 9(j) in 2011, and the attorney erroneously included the pre-2011 language. Soon after the complaint was filed, the original statute of limitations expired. When the mistake in the Rule 9(j) certification was revealed, Ms. Vaughan’s counsel moved to amend the complaint to add the omitted phrase. Following existing Court of Appeals precedent, the superior court denied the motion to amend as “futile” because, even if granted, the Rule 9(j) certification could not be properly made prior to expiration of the statute of limitations. Based on its prior decisions (Fintchre (2016); Alston (2016); and Keith (1998)), the Court of Appeals affirmed. Continue Reading