Connecticut Supreme Court Holds Opinion Letter Requirement Does Not Implicate Personal Jurisdiction
Hartford, CT (March 13, 2023) – The Supreme Court of Connecticut recently determined that the opinion letter requirement under Connecticut General Statutes § 52-190(a) – the accidental failure of suit statute – did not implicate a court’s personal jurisdiction. In so holding, Connecticut’s highest court not only reversed the dismissal of the dental malpractice action before it, but also overruled other prior Connecticut decisions.
In Carpenter v. Daar, the defendant, Dr. Bradley J. Daar, performed a root canal procedure on the plaintiff, Shane Carpenter. The site of procedure became infected, and the plaintiff underwent an extraoral incision and tooth extraction at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The plaintiff filed an initial action against Dr. Daar, which was dismissed due to a deficient opinion letter. Then, on February 21, 2018, the plaintiff commenced this action – pursuant to § 52-592 – against Dr. Daar and his business entity, Shoreline Modern Dental, LLC.
On April 5, 2018, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the opinion letter – written by a professor of endodontics – did not comply with §§ 52-190a (a) and 52-184c because it failed to demonstrate that the author of the letter was a similar health care provider to Dr. Daar, who was a general dentist and not a specialist in endodontics. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and the plaintiff subsequently appealed. The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment, and the plaintiff petitioned the Connecticut Supreme Court for certiorari.
Carpenter Court’s Analysis of Prior Case Law
The issue before the Connecticut Supreme Court in this matter was whether the lower court correctly concluded that the opinion letter requirement implicated the court's personal jurisdiction for purposes of the motion to dismiss. The court first addressed whether the jurisdictional analysis used in a motion to dismiss, as articulated in Conboy v. State, applied in the context of conducting the “similar health care provider” inquiry under § 52-190a. It had previously held, in Morgan v. Hartford Hospital, that (1) the failure to file a timely motion to dismiss waived any objection to the adequacy of the opinion letter and (2) the absence of a proper written opinion letter was a matter of form, and thus implicated personal jurisdiction.
The Carpenter court questioned the holding in Morgan, stating that the legislature's failure to use the terms “personal jurisdiction” or “service of process” in § 52-190a, when it so readily used those terms in other statutes in the same title, provided strong textual evidence that the legislature did not intend for the opinion letter to implicate the court's personal jurisdiction. The Carpenter court further reasoned that by elevating the credential of the authoring health care provider to a jurisdictional prerequisite of any kind, it would convert what the legislature intended to be simple pre-litigation documentation into a type of scenario in which even meritorious suits could be subject to dismissal. This result, the court determined, would violate public policy. As such, the Carpenter court overturned Morgan in concluding that the legislative history and text indicated that dismissal under § 52-190a was a unique statutory remedy intended to strengthen the existing good faith inquiry and to expedite the disposition of obviously frivolous medical malpractice actions.
In its decision, the Carpenter court also overturned Labissoniere v. Gaylord Hospital, Inc., concluding that there was no place in the § 52-190a inquiry for the consideration of affidavits or other materials intended to inject factual disputes beyond the adequacy of the pleadings and the annexed opinion letter. The court reasoned that because the opinion letter was not itself a process, to the extent that it was legally insufficient or defective under § 52-190a, trial courts retained the authority to permit amendments or supplementation in response to a motion to dismiss.
The Carpenter Decision
In its decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court first stated that the only question at the motion to dismiss stage of a § 52-190a claim was whether the good faith letter’s author was a similar health care provider to the defendant, based upon their respective qualifications pleaded in the complaint and described in the opinion letter. Second, the court emphasized that the ultimate holding in Morgan remained good law, such that a motion to dismiss for failure to file an opinion letter pursuant to § 52-190a was, indeed, waivable (including by inaction). However, the court then explained that consistent with its decision in Bennett v. New Milford Hospital, for purposes of a motion to dismiss under § 52-190a (c), the sufficiency of the opinion letter was to be determined solely on the basis of the allegations in the complaint and on the face of the opinion letter, without resort to the jurisdictional fact-finding process articulated in Conboy v. State.
Thus, the court concluded that a broad and realistic reading of the complaint in Carpenter suggested that in his pleading, Dr. Daar held himself out as a specialist in endodontics, rendering the opinion letter’s author – a professor of endodontics – a similar health care provider. The appellate court, therefore, improperly upheld the trial court's dismissal of the case.
Impact on Practitioners
The use of a motion to dismiss for failure to comply with § 52-190a remains an option for the defense. It has not been eliminated as a tool for the defense simply because the Connecticut Supreme Court held that such a motion does not implicate personal jurisdiction. This decision should not deter defense attorneys from filing motions to dismiss in cases where their analysis finds the opinion letter does not comply with the statue.
Angeline N. Ioannou, Managing Partner - Hartford, CT