Read the Order Before You Sign It

The recent case of Lopez-Rosario v. Habib, 785 S.E.2d 214 (2016), demonstrates the sometimes devastating consequences of an Order that does not fully reflect what transpired at a hearing. In 2010, the parents of Ms. Lopez-Rosario, an adult, petitioned the Loudoun County Circuit Court to be appointed guardians of their child. The reason for the petition was that “Ms. Lopez-Rosario ‘[was] an incapacitated individual’” and needed someone to make medical decisions for her. While the facts of the underlying guardianship proceeding made clear that the purpose of having the parents appointed as guardians “was to enable Lopez-Rosario’s parents to make medical decisions on her behalf[,]” the Order appointing the parents as guardians gave them authority that went above and beyond making medical decisions. Specifically, the Order appointed the parents as “Guardians” without any limitations on their authority. This made the parents full guardians, not limited ones. This distinction is important because, under Virginia Code Section 64.2-2000, a guardian appointed with no limitation of authority has the responsibility to file lawsuits on behalf of their ward (the ward in this case would be Lopez-Rosario). This means that all lawsuits involving Lopez-Rosario must be prosecuted by her parents and left Lopez-Rosario without standing to file suit on her behalf and “in her own name.”

In March of 2014, Lopez-Rosario underwent surgery to remove her gallbladder. The surgeon performing the removal injured Lopez-Rosario during the surgery. A medical malpractice lawsuit was filed by Lopez-Rosario individually and not by her guardians on Lopez-Rosario’s behalf. The defendants moved to dismiss the case arguing that the suit must be filed by Lopez-Rosario’s guardians, not by Lopez-Rosario individually. Lopez-Rosario argued that the guardianship “was limited to medical decisions and did not include matters such as filing lawsuits.” The circuit court disagreed and granted the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed that the purpose of the petition was clearly to address medical decision making and no other issues. Unfortunately, the Order granting the petition to appoint the guardians was not so limited.

The Court noted that “the language of the order [appointing the Guardians] is controlling” and that because trial courts speak only through written orders, those “‘orders are presumed to reflect accurately what transpired.’” While the record from the guardianship proceeding was clear in that the immediate purpose of the petition was to have Lopez-Rosario’s parents make medical decisions for their daughter, the Order did not limit their authority in this fashion. As a result, the Order appointing the parents as guardians resulted in a general appointment as opposed to a limited one. This vested the parents with the responsibility to file suits on behalf of Lopez-Rosario and stripped that ability from her. The Court concluded that Lopez-Rosario lacked standing to file the medical malpractice case and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. While the record is not clear on this, the statute of limitations for the guardians to file suit may have passed, which would leave Lopez-Rosario without a legal remedy in her medical malpractice case.

While this is a harsh result, it is a reminder of the importance of carefully reviewing orders before signing them and submitting them to a court for consideration and entry. Practitioners should be careful about signing any order that goes beyond the specific purpose of a hearing or that addresses matters not raised at a hearing. To avoid the problem that cropped up in Lopez-Rosario, it can be helpful to have someone else take a look at a proposed order before submitting it. So, too, can waiting a day or two after receiving the draft order before making changes or signing it and sending it out. While we all may want to get an order entered quickly to help move a case along, none of us wants an order with unintended consequences, such as taking away an individual’s ability to file a lawsuit.

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These articles are provided for general informational purposes only and are marketing publications of Gentry Locke. They do not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult your own lawyer concerning your situation and specific legal questions you may have.