The Supreme Court of Georgia has concluded that the March 2020 statewide, COVIDrelated judicial emergency order issued by former Chief Justice Harold D. Melton can be applied to toll the state’s five-year medical malpractice statute of repose [Georgia Code § 9-3-71 (b)] consistent with the federal and Georgia Constitutions.

Thus, the Supreme Court has reversed a Georgia Court of Appeals decision that held that Jami Lynn Golden’s medical malpractice lawsuit against Floyd Medical Center was timebarred and could not proceed. Golden filed a renewal action against Floyd Healthcare Management, Inc. (doing business as Floyd Medical Center) in October 2021, asserting claims that included medical malpractice and hospital negligence. Floyd Medical moved to dismiss the suit, arguing in part that the five-year statute of repose expired in July 2021 and thus time-barred Golden’s suit. The trial court denied that motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that the statute of repose was not tolled by former Chief Justice Melton’s judicial emergency order issued on March 14, 2020.

The Supreme Court granted Golden’s petition for certiorari and heard oral arguments in this case on May 16, 2024.

Today’s unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Carla Wong McMillian, states that the Judicial Emergency Act of 2004 [Georgia Code § 38-3-62 (a)] empowers an “authorized judicial official”—in this case, then-Chief Justice Melton—to “suspend, toll, extend, or otherwise grant
relief from” the application of a statute of repose. Floyd Medical argued the Judicial Emergency Act does not authorize the tolling of statutes of response because it does not specifically mention them. However, the Supreme Court has concluded that “it is clear and unambiguous that statutes of repose fall within the meaning of ‘deadlines’” under the Judicial Emergency Act.

“OCGA § 38-3-62 (a) provides that ‘deadlines’ can be tolled, and a statute of repose is plainly a ‘deadline,’” Justice McMillian writes. “And, while OCGA § 38-3-62 (a) does not specifically mention a repose statute as a deadline that can be tolled, OCGA § 38-3-62 (a) makes clear that the list of ‘deadlines’ it authorizes to be tolled is non-exhaustive, by introducing that list with the language ‘including, but not limited to.’”

Today’s opinion also states that the March 14, 2020, judicial emergency order mirrored the language of the Judicial Emergency Act and that subsequent guidance issued by the Court under the direction of former Chief Justice Melton “explicitly clarified that the March 14 Order
applied to ‘all proceedings and filing deadlines.’”

The Court also rejected Floyd Medical’s argument that tolling the five-year statute of repose via the judicial emergency order would violate its constitutional due process rights. Instead, the Court has concluded that, because the judicial emergency order was entered (in March 2020) before the time when the five-year statute of repose would have expired (in July 2021), the judicial emergency order did not deprive Floyd Medical of any of its vested rights. Therefore, the judicial emergency order can be applied to the five-year statute of repose consistent with the federal and state constitutions.