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Maryland Court of Special Appeals holds that appointment of a guardian for a mentally incompetent person “removes the disability” under tolling statutes

Kurt Kratz, by and through his guardian, Carole Kratz-Spera v. Medsource Community Services, Inc.
No. 126 (June 29, 2016) The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

by Marie Claire Langlois, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2016/0126s15.pdf

Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, section 5-201(a) states that “[w]hen a [civil] cause of action subject to a limitation under Subtitle 1 . . . accrues in favor of a minor or mental incompetent, that person shall file his action within the lesser of three years or the applicable period of limitations after the date the disability is removed.” (emphasis added) Carole Kratz-Spera, as guardian of her son, Kurt Kratz, appealled a decision by the Circuit Court, holding that the appointment of a guardian over the person “remov[ed] the disability” of a mentally incompetent individual under Maryland tolling statutes. Kratz-Spera sought to reverse the Court’s approval of Defendant’s motion to dismiss in order to bring her case alleging negligence on the part of the Defendant.

Kurt Kratz is an adult who suffers from severe autism and intellectual disability. While Kratz was a resident of a group home in Laurel, Maryland, operated by Medsource, he suffered significant injury related to two separate incidents. First, on March 22, 2006, Kratz gained access to a bottle containing a sedative, chloral hydrate. After ingesting a large quantity of the substance, Kratz was found by his mother, asleep and foaming at the mouth. Kratz was transported to a hospital and remained in a coma for sixty (60) days. The second incident occurred on November 24, 2009 when Kratz suffered second degree burns from submerging his hand in a pot of boiling water. In a police report, a Medsource employee stated that he observed another employee holding Kratz’s hand momentarily in the water. His mother found out the next day.

Over seven (7) years after the first incident and three (3) years after the second, in June 2013, Kratz, by his guardian and mother, filed a complaint alleging liability against Medsource on three different theories of negligence related to the second incident. Medsource moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Maryland Health Care Malpractice Claims Act requires arbitration prior to filing an action with the court. While the court denied the motion, it ordered a stay to allow Kratz to pursue resolution through the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office. The parties were not successful in achieving a resolution.

One year later, Kratz, again by his guardian and mother filed a second complaint regarding the same incidents. Kratz’s counsel conceded to the complaint’s redundancy and admitted its purpose was to ensure the first case was re-opened. The court reopened the prior case and consolidated the complaints. Medsource moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing with exact similarity that the statute of limitations had passed for Kratz’s complaint. The Court dismissed all counts, holding that tolling begins when the guardian becomes aware of the cause of action.

On appeal, Kratz-Spera’s primary position is that because her son remains under disability that Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-201 continues to apply to his claims. In support of this contention, Kratz-Spera asserts that her adult disabled son should be treated comparatively to a minor child, arguing that the General Assembly intended such results by treating the two types of individuals the same under the limitations statute. Additionally, the guardianship statute, Md. Code Ann., Est. & Trusts § 13-708, makes a direct comparison between minors and persons with disabilities: “The rights, duties, and powers which the court may order include . . . [t]he same rights, powers, and duties that a parent has with respect to an unemancipated child.”

Yet the Court found this unpersuasive, holding that there are two significant distinctions between minors and mentally incompetent individuals. First, the “the disability of infancy” has an end date, giving potential defendants some protection against never-ending liability. Second, the relationship between guardian and minor child, and guardian and disabled person, is significantly different. While the tolling statute aims to protect children against neglectful parents, allowing them to reach legal “understanding” at the age of maturity, a guardian to a mentally incompetent adult has already advocated for the disabled by petitioning the court for appointment. A guardian to a mentally incompetent adult seeks an active role as that person’s advocate, taking on such responsibilities as filing claims. For that reason, imposing a statute of limitations on guardians of disabled persons, “does not threaten the mentally incompetent adult’s rights the way it would those of a child.”

In a final note the court reflected that it “cannot imagine a policy requiring a potential defendant to be on notice of future litigation for years, if not decades, to be a sound public policy,” as Kratz-Spera is suggesting. This conclusion comes ninety-seven (97) years after the ruling in Funk v. Wingert, 134 Md. 523 (1919), which was the last time a Maryland appellate court addressed whether guardians trigger the statute of limitations. On which point, the court clearly stated that Funk, which predated the Maryland guardian statute by almost 60 years, is no longer sustainable in our modern age.


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