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White River Health System, Inc. v. Long

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions I, II

May 2, 2018

WHITE RIVER HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., d/b/a WHITE RIVER MEDICAL CENTER, ET AL. APPELLANTS
v.
MADELINE LONG, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF DANIELLE TOTH, DECEASED APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE INDEPENDENCE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT NO. 32CV-12-26] HONORABLE MAUREEN HARROD, JUDGE

          Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP, by: William M. Griffin III and Tyler D. Bone, for appellant.

          Scholtens & Averitt, PLC, by: Chris A. Averitt, for appellee.

          LARRY D. VAUGHT, JUDGE.

         Appellant White River Health System, Inc., d/b/a White River Medical Center (WRMC), appeals from the order entered by the Circuit Court of Independence County on September 13, 2017, denying its motion for summary judgment based on the affirmative defense of charitable immunity. On appeal, WRMC argues that it presented prima facie evidence demonstrating its entitlement to summary judgment as a charitable entity immune from liability and suit in tort and that appellee, Madeline Long, as special administratrix of the estate of Danielle Toth, deceased (Estate), failed to meet proof with proof to show a genuine issue of material fact. Because WRMC has not appealed from a final order, we lack jurisdiction and must dismiss without prejudice.

         On January 20, 2012, Randall Johnson, as special administrator of the estate of Danielle Toth, deceased, filed this action against multiple defendants, including WRMC, asserting claims for wrongful death and medical negligence.[1] WRMC answered the complaint, denied the allegations of negligence, and pled that it was a charitable, nonprofit organization entitled to immunity from liability and suit.

         In June 2012, WRMC filed a motion for summary judgment based on the charitable-immunity doctrine. To the motion, WRMC attached a copy of its articles of incorporation as a nonprofit corporation and an affidavit by Gary L. Bebow, the chief executive officer of WRMC. In July 2012, in further support of its motion for summary judgment, WRMC filed its 2009 federal-income-tax records as an organization exempt from income tax. In December 2012, the circuit court held an unrecorded hearing on WRMC's motion for summary judgment; however, no written order was entered disposing of the matter.

         On August 18, 2017, the Estate filed a motion for sanctions against WRMC. The motion alleged that WRMC had committed discovery violations from 2012 to 2017 by repeatedly failing and refusing to provide the Estate with a complete set of Toth's medical records and by providing inaccurate information regarding its liability coverage. The Estate requested that it be granted both a default judgment against WRMC and a jury trial on the issue of damages.

         On September 8, 2017, a hearing on both WRMC's motion for summary judgment and on the Estate's motion for sanctions was held. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court orally denied WRMC's motion for summary judgment and granted the Estate's motion for sanctions. On September 13, 2017, the circuit court entered an order denying WRMC's motion for summary judgment. The court found

that there are disputed facts as to whether the organization's goal is to break even; whether the organization depends upon contributions and donations for its existence; whether the organization provides its services free of charge to those unable to pay; and whether its directors receive and officers receive any compensation.

         Importantly, the court's order bifurcated trial: a trial on the charitable-immunity issue was to be immediately followed by a trial on the medical-malpractice claims.[2] This appeal followed.

         On appeal, WRMC argues that the circuit court erred in denying summary judgment because it presented prima facie evidence to demonstrate its entitlement to charitable immunity from liability and suit as a matter of law and that the Estate failed to meet proof with proof to show a genuine issue of material fact on the issue. We are unable to reach the merits of this argument because WRMC has not appealed from a final order.

         Our rules of appellate procedure require that an order be final to be appealable. Muntaqim v. Hobbs, 2017 Ark. 97, at 2, 514 S.W.3d 464, 466 (citing Ark. R. App. P.-Civ. 2 (2016); Denney v. Denney, 2015 Ark. 257, at 4, 464 S.W.3d 920, 922). Generally, the denial of a motion for summary judgment is neither reviewable nor appealable. Ark. Elder Outreach of Little Rock, Inc. v. Thompson, 2012 Ark.App. 681, at 4, 425 S.W.3d 779, 783. However, our court has routinely reviewed and decided orders in cases where the circuit court refused to grant a summary-judgment motion based on the defense of charitable immunity. Id. at 4, 425 S.W.3d at 783; Gain, Inc. v. Martin, 2016 Ark.App. 157, at 2, 485 S.W.3d 729, 731-32; Progressive Eldercare Servs.-Saline, Inc. v. Cauffiel, 2016 Ark.App. 523, at 2, 508 S.W.3d 59, 61-62; Progressive Eldercare Servs.-Bryant, Inc. v. Price, 2016 Ark.App. 528; Progressive Eldercare Servs.-Saline, Inc. v. Garrett, 2016 Ark.App. 518.

         In these cases, appellate jurisdiction was based on Arkansas Rule of Appellate Procedure-Civil 2(a)(2), which provides that an appeal may be taken from "an order which in effect determines the action and prevents a judgment from which an appeal might be taken, or discontinues the action." Ark. R. App. P.-Civ. 2(a)(2) (2017). Based on Rule 2(a)(2), our court has held that it had jurisdiction in cases where the refusal to grant a summary-judgment motion had the effect of determining that the appellant was not entitled to its defense of charitable immunity from suit, as the right of immunity from suit is effectively lost if a case is permitted to go to trial. Thompson, 2012 Ark.App. 681, at 4, 425 S.W.3d at ...


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