In Churchill v. Columbus Community Hospital, Inc., the Nebraska Supreme Court attempted to provide clarification, in the context of services provided by a physical therapist, about how to determine when the two year professional negligence statute of limitation applies and when the four year general negligence statute of limitation applies.
In Churchill, a patient participating in aquatic therapy was injured after she slipped on a puddle of water while descending steps to leave a pool area located within a physical therapy clinic. The clinic’s policy was not to assist patients leaving the pool unless an initial evaluation indicated the patient had trouble walking. Churchill’s evaluation did not reveal any such trouble. On November 1, 2011, one day before the four year anniversary of her fall, Churchill filed an action in Platte County District Court against the clinic’s owner, claiming negligence in failing to clean the floor and failing to warn of the water hazard. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, determining that the action was one for professional negligence, which Nebraska Revised Statute §25-222 states must be filed within two years after the act or omission occurred.
Churchill appealed the grant of summary judgment against her on the grounds that her claim was for premises liability, which is subject to a four year statute of limitation under Neb. Rev. Stat. §25-207. Addressing an issue it had not previously specifically determined, the Court concluded that physical therapists are considered professionals, taking into account that physical therapists are licensed by the state, are required to have a college degree, are subject to professional disciplinary authority, and are required to maintain certain educational requirements. The Court then stated that the alleged negligent act, directing Churchill to leave the pool without assistance, occurred within the scope of a professional relationship between patient and therapist. The Court reasoned that performing aquatic exercises was part of Churchill’s therapy, and her therapist evaluated her ability to walk. When the therapist directed Churchill to leave the pool without assistance, he was providing professional services. Thus, Churchill’s action was not allowed to proceed, as it was governed by the two year statute of limitation for professional negligence.
Churchill thus clarified the analysis by which Nebraska courts evaluate whether a claim must be filed within two years as professional negligence, or within four years as required for other causes of action. The act or omission alleged must be essential and an integral part of the professional service rendered. Also, the profession addressed must exhibit factors similar to the factors set forth in Churchill. This rule of law has been upheld in subsequent cases.
Churchill gives plaintiffs an incentive to file suit early if they have any question as to whether their claim is subject to the professional negligence statute of limitation. Those defending against claims may argue for a broader application of the definition of “professional negligence”, as Churchill may broaden that definition in some situations.