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Levin v. State

Supreme Court of Connecticut

August 14, 2018

JILL K. LEVIN, ADMINISTRATRIX (ESTATE OF MARGARET ROHNER)
v.
STATE OF CONNECTICUT

          Argued November 16, 2017

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for the wrongful death of the plaintiff's decedent as a result of the defendant's alleged negligence, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, where the court, Elgo, J., granted the defendant's motion to strike; thereafter, the court, Shapiro, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for judgment and rendered judgment for the defendant, from which the plaintiff appealed. Affirmed.

          Steven L. Seligman, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Nicole A. Demers, assistant attorney general, with whom were Linsley Barbato, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, and Michael R. Bullers, assistant attorney general, for the appellee (defendant).

          McDonald, Robinson, Mullins, Kahn and Vertefeuille, Js. [*]

          OPINION

          KAHN, J.

         The sole question presented in this appeal is whether an action authorized by the claims commissioner, limited to medical malpractice, may survive a motion to strike where the plaintiff was not a patient of the defendant, as required by Jarmie v. Troncale, 306 Conn. 578, 587, 50 A.3d 802 (2012). The plaintiff, Jill K. Levin, administratrix of the estate of Margaret Rohner (decedent), appeals[1] from the judgment rendered in favor of the defendant, the state of Connecticut, after the trial court granted the defendant's motion to strike. The plaintiff argues that Jarmie does not control in the present case because she is not alleging medical malpractice but, rather, ‘‘medical negligence, '' resulting from the care, treatment, and custody of a patient, and from a failure to warn the decedent of the patient's dangerous propensities. Simultaneously, the plaintiff asserts that there is no meaningful difference between her negligence claim and the medical malpractice claim presented to, and authorized by, the claims commissioner. The defendant counters that the trial court properly struck the plaintiff's claim under Jarmie, because it is a medical malpractice action filed by a nonpatient plaintiff. Alternatively, the defendant contends that, even if the plaintiff's claim is one sounding in negligence, the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the claims commissioner granted permission to bring an action only for medical malpractice. We agree with the defendant and affirm the trial court's judgment in favor of the defendant rendered following the granting of the defendant's motion to strike.

         The following procedural background is relevant to our resolution of this appeal. The plaintiff alleges that Robert O. Rankin fatally attacked and stabbed the decedent, Rankin's mother, while on an approved home visit from River Valley Services (River Valley), a residential mental health-care facility operated by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The plaintiff thereafter filed a notice of claim with the Office of the Claims Commissioner, seeking permission to bring an action against the defendant for medical malpractice based on mental health services and treatment given to Rankin. The claims commissioner thereafter issued his finding and order, granting permission to the plaintiff to bring an action against the defendant under General Statutes § 4-160 (b).[2] The order specified that ‘‘[t]his grant of permission to sue is limited to that portion of the ‘claim alleging malpractice against the [defendant], a state hospital or a sanitarium or against a physician, surgeon, dentist, podiatrist, chiropractor, or all other licensed health-care providers employed by the [defendant].' ''

         The plaintiff subsequently brought this action, alleging that River Valley was negligent in its diagnosis, care, treatment, and custody of Rankin, and that its level of care was below that of a reasonably prudent healthcare provider. Specifically, the plaintiff asserted that River Valley failed to secure psychiatric hospitalization for Rankin despite being aware of his emotional deterioration, allowed Rankin to visit the decedent unsupervised despite knowing that he was acting in an increasingly threatening manner toward her, reassured the decedent that it was safe to have Rankin visit despite knowing otherwise, and failed to warn the decedent that Rankin posed a threat to her safety.

         The defendant filed a motion to strike the complaint, contending that Connecticut does not recognize medical malpractice claims brought by nonpatient third parties. The trial court granted the motion to strike, observing in its memorandum of decision that ‘‘the plaintiff's argument suffers from a dual dilemma.'' First, the trial court noted that its ‘‘subject matter jurisdiction is predicated on the claim's character as a medical malpractice action, which then fails in light of . . . Jarmie. Second, even if the complaint could be construed as a common-law negligence action, then the court would be forced to consider and ultimately determine that it is without subject matter jurisdiction [because] there is no basis for finding that the [c]laims [c]ommissioner specifically authorized it as such.'' Following the trial court's ruling granting the motion to strike, the plaintiff sought to appeal rather than file a new pleading. Thus, pursuant to Practice Book § 10-44, the plaintiff moved for judgment in favor of the defendant on the stricken complaint. Accordingly, the trial court rendered judgment for the defendant. This appeal followed.

         The issue presented is whether Jarmie prohibits an action, limited by the claims commissioner to medical malpractice, where the plaintiff was not a patient of the defendant. We begin by setting forth the standard of review, which in the context of ‘‘an appeal challenging a trial court's granting of a motion to strike is well established. A motion to strike challenges the legal sufficiency of a pleading, and, consequently, requires no factual findings by the trial court. As a result, our review of the court's ruling is plenary. . . . We take the facts to be those alleged in the [pleading] that has been stricken and we construe the [pleading] in the manner most favorable to sustaining its legal sufficiency.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Jarmie v. Troncale, supra, 306 Conn. 583.

         ‘‘We have long held that because [a] determination regarding a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law, our review is plenary. . . . Moreover, [i]t is a fundamental rule that a court may raise and review the issue of subject matter jurisdiction at any time. . . . Subject matter jurisdiction involves the authority of the court to adjudicate the type of controversy presented by the action before it. . . . [A] court lacks discretion to consider the merits of a case over which it is without jurisdiction . . . . The subject matter jurisdiction requirement may not be waived by any party, and also may be raised by a party, or by the court sua sponte, at any stage of the proceedings, including on appeal.'' (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ajadi v. Commissioner of Correction, 280 Conn. 514, 532-33, 911 A.2d 712 (2006).

         The limitation that the claims commissioner placed on his authorization of the plaintiff's action-restricting that authorization to the plaintiff's medical malpractice claim-created a quandary for the plaintiff. On the one hand, Connecticut does not permit medical malpractice actions to be brought by a nonpatient against a healthcare provider. See Jarmie v.Troncale, supra, 306 ...


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