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Belle v. Goldasich

Supreme Court of Alabama

September 13, 2019

Antoinette Belle, as personal representative of the Estate of Edith Louise Mitchell, deceased
v.
Dennis E. Goldasich, Jr., et al.

          Appeal from Mobile Circuit Court (CV-18-42)

          MITCHELL, JUSTICE.

         This is a legal-malpractice case that stems from a medical-malpractice action. Antoinette Belle, as personal representative of the estate of Edith Louise Mitchell, deceased, sued various health-care providers that treated Mitchell while she was hospitalized in April 2009. Belle eventually reached settlements with all of those health-care providers except two physicians. The trial court entered a summary judgment against Belle and in favor of the two physicians, bringing the medical-malpractice action to a close.

         Belle then filed a legal-malpractice case against four attorneys and three law firms that had represented her at varying times in the medical-malpractice action, alleging that they had been negligent in representing her. Belle later brought an additional claim of fraudulent concealment. The attorneys and law firms denied the allegations against them, arguing that Belle's claims were untimely and that they had no factual or legal basis. The trial court agreed and entered judgments in favor of the attorneys and law firms. Belle appeals. We affirm the judgments.

         Facts and Procedural History

         On April 23, 2009, Mitchell was transported by ambulance to a Mobile hospital after complaining of chest pain. Mitchell was admitted to the hospital and was treated over the next seven days. On April 30, 2009, she passed away.

         On April 29, 2011, Belle, the court-appointed personal representative of Mitchell's estate, filed a complaint in the Mobile Circuit Court alleging that the hospital, nurses, and physicians that had treated Mitchell in the week before her death had provided her with substandard care that proximately caused her death. Belle claimed that those health-care providers had breached the applicable standards of care by failing to ensure that Mitchell was given her corticosteroid medication while she was hospitalized, even though they had been given notice that Mitchell had been taking that prescription medication for approximately 11 years. The complaint further alleged that the health-care providers failed to timely recognize Mitchell's symptoms of withdrawal from the corticosteroid and her dehydration and that those failures hastened the organ failure that ultimately caused her death.

         Belle's complaint was prepared and signed by Dennis E. Goldasich, Jr., and Victoria Dye, attorneys who were at the time affiliated with Fischer, Goldasich & Aughtman, LLC, a Birmingham law firm ("the Fischer firm"). Goldasich subsequently left the Fischer firm and started Goldasich & Associates, LLC ("the Goldasich firm"), taking Belle's case with him. Goldasich properly notified the trial court at the time he separated from the Fischer firm that he and the Goldasich firm would thereafter be Belle's counsel of record. Because Dye remained at the Fischer firm, she asked the trial court to allow her to withdraw from the case. In October 2011, Dye's motion to withdraw was granted, and it is undisputed that Dye and the Fischer firm had no involvement in Belle's case after that time. In April 2012, J. Allan Brown of J. Allan Brown, LLC, a Mobile law firm ("the Brown firm"), filed a notice of appearance indicating that he would also be representing Belle in the medical-malpractice action. In May 2015, Brown's associate, Joseph F. McGowin IV, filed his own notice of appearance on behalf of Belle.

         In January 2013, Belle reached a settlement with the hospital and its nurses and agreed to dismiss them from the case, leaving only her claims against two physicians to be resolved. Those claims proceeded toward trial, and in March 2015 Belle's expert witness, Dr. Ednan Bajwa, was deposed. During his deposition, Dr. Bajwa testified that Mitchell's death had been caused by the failure of the two physicians to diagnose and treat a urinary-tract infection from which Mitchell was suffering when she was hospitalized. Dr. Bajwa testified that the untreated urinary-tract infection eventually became septic and caused Mitchell's death.

         The two physicians thereafter moved the trial court to exclude Dr. Bajwa's testimony about Mitchell's alleged urinary-tract infection because Belle's complaint did not assert a claim based on the failure to diagnose and treat such an infection. On August 3, 2015, Belle filed an amended complaint in which she asserted for the first time that the two physicians had failed to diagnose and treat Mitchell's urinary-tract infection and that this negligence had proximately caused Mitchell's death. On August 18, 2015, the trial court denied the two physicians' motion to exclude Dr. Bajwa's testimony.

         It is not entirely clear from the record what transpired over the next 17 months, but on February 1, 2017, Belle's case was transferred to a new judge. That same day, Brown, McGowin, and the Brown firm moved to withdraw from the case, and on February 6, 2017, the trial court granted their motion. On March 29, 2017, the two physicians moved the trial court again to exclude Dr. Bajwa's testimony about a urinary-tract infection. The two physicians also moved the trial court to enter a partial summary judgment in their favor on Belle's claim asserting that Mitchell's death was caused by an untreated urinary-tract infection. The physicians argued that the claim was not brought until August 2015 -- after the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations that governs medical-malpractice actions -- and that the claim did not relate back to the original complaint and was thus not permissible under Rule 15(c), Ala. R. Civ. P. While those motions were pending, Edward Johnson and Donald Stewart with Stewart & Stewart, P.C., filed notices of appearance on behalf of Belle. Goldasich and the Goldasich firm thereafter moved to withdraw from the case, and on April 17, 2017, they were permitted to do so, leaving only Johnson and Stewart as Belle's attorneys of record. At the time Goldasich and the Goldasich firm were allowed to withdraw, the claim based on allegations of an untreated urinary-tract infection had been successfully lodged and the physicians' motion for a partial summary judgment was pending.

         On July 19, 2017, three months after Goldasich and the Goldasich firm had withdrawn, the trial court entered a partial summary judgment in favor of the two physicians on Belle's claim alleging that they had failed to diagnose and treat Mitchell's urinary-tract infection. The trial court held that the claim did not relate back to the original complaint and was therefore barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Belle thereafter petitioned this Court, pursuant to Rule 5, Ala. R. App. P., for permission to file an immediate appeal of the trial court's judgment. In October 2017, this Court unanimously denied her petition. The two physicians subsequently moved the trial court to enter a summary judgment in their favor on the remaining claims asserted against them by Belle. In February 2018, the trial court granted the motion of the two physicians and entered a final judgment in their favor. Belle did not appeal that judgment.

         On December 5, 2017, Belle sued Goldasich and the Goldasich firm, Dye and the Fischer firm, and Brown, McGowin, and the Brown firm (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the attorney defendants"), alleging that they had negligently failed to assert a claim against the two physicians for failing to diagnose and treat Mitchell's urinary-tract infection before the statute of limitations for that claim expired. The attorney defendants thereafter moved the trial court to enter judgments in their favor, arguing that Belle's claims were untimely under the Alabama Legal Services Liability Act, § 6-5-570 et seq., Ala. Code 1975 ("the ALSLA"), which by its terms governs all actions in Alabama in which an attorney or law firm is alleged to have breached the standard of care in the provision of legal services.[1] See Sessions v. Espy, 854 So.2d 515, 522 (Ala. 2002) ("From these Code sections [§§ 6-5-572 and 6-5-573, Ala. Code 1975], it is clear that the ALSLA applies to all actions against 'legal service providers' alleging a breach of their duties in providing legal services."). The attorney defendants specifically argued that Belle's claims were barred by § 6-5-574(a), Ala. Code 1975, which provides:

"All legal service liability actions against a legal service provider must be commenced within two years after the act or omission or failure giving rise to the claim, and not afterwards; provided, that if the cause of action is not discovered and could not reasonably have been discovered within such period, then the action may be commenced within six months from the date of such discovery or the date of discovery of facts which would reasonably lead to such discovery, whichever is earlier; provided, ...

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