Pro Se Parties Cannot Pursue Claims on Behalf of Others, Including Their Children

A recent decision from the Court of Appeals of Tennessee considers an interesting issue that could impact the way Tennessee attorneys handle personal injuries lawsuits.  In James R. Vandergriff et al. v.  Parkridge East Hospital et al., pro se plaintiffs, James R. Vandergriff and Samantha J. Vandergriff, filed a complaint against Parkridge East Hospital (along with numerous other healthcare providers) stemming from treatment Mrs. Vandergriff received in 2004 while she was pregnant with her daughter, Catherine Vandergriff.  According to her medical records, Mrs. Vandergriff was admitted to Parkridge East Hospital on March 10, 2004, when she was treated for a serious womb infection.  On March 21, 2004, just four days after she was discharged from Parkridge East Hospital, Mrs. Vandergriff was readmitted and gave birth prematurely to her daughter, Catherine Vandergriff.  Catherine was born with brain injuries and remains severely disabled.

In their complaint, which they filed pro se on August 25, 2014, the Vandergriffs alleged that their daughter’s injuries were the result of the defendants’ failure to properly treat Mrs. Vandergriff’s infection in early March 2004. The plaintiffs also alleged that the medical records were intentionally falsified to conceal this failure.  Their complaint contained separate claims on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Vandergriff in addition to claims on behalf of their daughter.  The plaintiffs asserted that the complaint was timely filed—despite being filed over ten years after Mrs. Vandergriff’s hospitalization—because the defendants’ alleged falsification of medical records concealed the negligence.

Defendants moved to dismiss, claiming that the parents’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations and Catherine’s claims were barred by the three-year statute of repose.  After hearing the motions, the trial court dismissed all of the plaintiffs’ claims, concluding that Mr. and Mrs. Vandergriff learned of the womb infection in 2002, nearly two years before they filed their complaint.  The plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s decision.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the parents’ claim based on the statute of limitations.  More importantly, the appellate court likewise affirmed the dismissal of Catherine’s claims because they were “asserted in a pleading by a person who is not entitled to practice law.”  By asserting claims on behalf of another person in a pro se complaint, Mr. and Mrs. Vandergriff were engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the claims filed on behalf of Catherine Vandergriff were a nullity. 

Based on this decision, it is clear that pro se parties can only pursue their own claims. They cannot pursue claims on behalf of their children or others and instead must hire an attorney. This should be considered when defending claims brought by pro se parties on behalf of themselves and others.