Understanding the Statute of Limitations for Medical Malpractice
People seek medical care from their doctors or other healthcare providers to obtain treatment for injuries and illnesses and to prevent medical problems from developing. Medical providers typically deliver competent care to their patients and use their medical knowledge and skills to protect their health. However, some providers fail to provide competent medical treatment to their patients and make medical errors that cause serious injuries or death. When a medical provider’s care fails to meet the minimum expected standard of care and results in severe patient harm, the victim or surviving family members can file a medical malpractice claim against the negligent doctor or another healthcare professional.
If you are considering a medical malpractice claim against a healthcare professional, doctor, or hospital you believe caused your injuries, it’s important to contact the experienced medical malpractice lawyers in Philadelphia at Raynes & Lawn. Our attorneys can analyze the records and evidence and explain the potential merits of your case. One critical thing is for you to act quickly instead of waiting to talk to an attorney. Like other legal claims, medical malpractice lawsuits must adhere to filing deadlines called statutes of limitation. Here’s what you need to know about the statutes of limitations that might apply to your medical malpractice case and how they might impact your ability to pursue compensation for your losses.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
Statutes of limitations are laws that prescribe time limits for filing different types of legal actions. Every state has established various statutes of limitations that control when legal actions can be filed to address various types of legal disputes. This sets a deadline for filing a claim after an incident has occurred. A lawsuit must be filed within the limitation period, which is the time between when the clock starts to run and when it ends.
The claim will be time-barred if a lawsuit is not filed before the statute of limitations clock runs. This means that the defendant will likely file a motion to dismiss any late-filed claim, and the court will grant the motion. Missing the statute of limitations for your medical malpractice case would likely mean that you would be left without legal recourse to recover compensation for your losses.
Why Do States Have Statutes of Limitation?
Pennsylvania and other states have enacted statutes of limitation to ensure that judgments are based on valid evidence. When a significant amount of time passes between the negligent act and when a lawsuit is filed, some critical evidence can be lost or deteriorate. Witnesses can also move and be difficult or impossible to locate. These laws are meant to protect defendants from facing unfair legal actions that are impossible to defend against.
While statutes of limitations set a maximum time for filing a lawsuit following the date of a negligent act, there are some circumstances under which the time limit will be tolled. This means that, in certain cases, the limitation period will not start to run until a later point based on the facts and circumstances, which can greatly expand the time to file a medical malpractice lawsuit in some situations.
What Is the Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania has two statutes of limitation for medical malpractice lawsuits found in 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524(2) that differ based on whether the victim survived or passed away as a result of their injuries. Typically, when a victim survives their injuries following an act of medical malpractice, they will have two years from the date of their injury and the provider’s negligent act to file a lawsuit.
The second statute of limitation for medical malpractice claims in Pennsylvania occurs when the victim dies from their injuries. In that situation, the statute of limitation starts to run from the date of the victim’s death rather than the date of their injury and the negligent act. This distinction is important because there are some situations in which a medical malpractice victim might live for a period following their injuries before ultimately succumbing to them.
While the medical malpractice statute of limitations in Pennsylvania is generally two years from the date of injury or death, there are certain situations in which the statute of limitations will be tolled. This means that the clock won’t start to run until a future date. In Pennsylvania, there are four exceptions to the general statute of limitation for medical malpractice, including the discovery rule, the victim’s age, negligence involving foreign objects left behind, and when fraudulent concealment has occurred.
The Discovery Rule as an Exception to the Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitation
Pennsylvania follows a discovery rule for medical malpractice cases. Under this rule, the statute of limitations clock will be tolled until the date a medical negligence victim discovers their injury was caused by a healthcare provider’s malpractice or the date when the victim reasonably should have discovered the cause of their injury.
For example, imagine that a patient undergoes surgery in 2023, and the surgeon leaves a sponge behind in their body. The patient might not discover the sponge until nine years later when they develop a serious infection and must undergo surgery to remove it. In that case, the statute of limitations would be tolled until the date they discovered the sponge was left behind and caused their further injuries instead of from the date of the doctor’s negligence.
The Discovery Rule and the Statute of Repose
Under Pennsylvania’s MCARE Act, the Commonwealth has a statute of repose codified at 40 Pa.C.S. § 1303.513. This law sets a maximum seven-year limit on medical malpractice cases regardless of whether or not the patient discovered or reasonably should have discovered the injury. This law would keep people who suffered injuries caused by the malpractice of a healthcare provider from filing lawsuits when their injuries and the negligent act occurred more than seven years before.
However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the statute of repose is unconstitutional in its decision in Yanakos v. UPMC, 218 A.3d 1214 (2019). In that case, a young man was cleared by doctors in 2003 to provide a section of his liver as a transplant for his mother, who suffered from a genetic liver condition. The young man was cleared to donate the portion of his liver despite tests showing that he also suffered from liver problems. In 2014, the young man was diagnosed with the same condition his mother suffered from and was diagnosed with advanced disease of his liver.
He filed a lawsuit, but the lower courts dismissed it because it was filed outside the statute of repose. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the dismissal and found that the statute of repose was unconstitutional for cases in which it is not possible for the medical negligence of a doctor to be discovered until much later.
Minors and the Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations
People under the age of 18 are not considered legally competent to file lawsuits in Pennsylvania. Because of this, the state provides an exception to the general statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases found in 42 Pa.C.S. § 5533. Under this law, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the minor reaches age 18. They will then have two years or until their 20th birthday to file a lawsuit.
For example, imagine that a doctor makes a medical mistake while removing a 13-year-old’s appendix, resulting in the perforation of a nearby organ, internal bleeding, and sepsis. If a malpractice claim is not filed on behalf of the minor within two years by the minor’s parent or legal guardian, the child will be able to file a lawsuit against the negligent provider when they turn 18 as long as they do so before turning 20.
Statute of Repose and Minors
Pennsylvania’s statute of repose will apply if a minor’s injury was discovered or reasonably should have been discovered while they were still younger than age 18. In that case, the minor will have either seven years from the date the injury was discovered or until they turn age 20 to file a lawsuit. For example, imagine that a doctor performed a medical procedure on a 15-year-old, and the injury was not discovered until the child was 17. The child would then have until age 24 to file a lawsuit against the doctor who negligently caused the injury.
Fraudulent Concealment and the Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations
In some cases, a medical provider might fraudulently conceal their negligence to try to prevent a patient from filing a medical malpractice claim. For example, imagine that a doctor makes a mistake while performing surgery on a patient that causes an injury and fails to tell them about what happened. Later, when the patient complains of ongoing pain because of the error made by the doctor, the physician tells the patient that their pain is a normal side effect of the surgery.
The patient continues to experience pain for three years and then decides to look at their medical records. They discover that the doctor made a medical mistake that caused the injury and chronic pain. Since the doctor fraudulently concealed their medical negligence, the patient would still be able to file a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor even though it would be beyond two years.
Foreign Objects and the Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations
Before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the statute of repose was unconstitutional, patients who had foreign objects left behind in their bodies already had an exception to it. When a doctor leaves behind a foreign object that is undiscovered for years, the patient can still file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctor as long as they do so within two years of when they discovered or reasonably should have discovered the object.
Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations When the Defendant Is the Government
In some cases, the defendant will be a government-owned hospital or employee. In that type of situation, the medical malpractice statute of limitations is different from the general statute of limitations that governs other medical malpractice cases. Under the Pennsylvania Sovereign Immunity Act, the state is immune from most types of lawsuits. However, the state does waive its immunity for personal injury claims, including those involving medical malpractice.
Under 42 Pa.C.S. § 5522, a potential plaintiff must file a notice with the government of their intent to sue no later than six months following the negligent act that caused their injury. If the victim fails to file the notice with the government within that time, they will be barred from filing a malpractice lawsuit against the government hospital or employee to recover compensation for their losses.
This notice must include the following information:
- Claimant’s name and address
- Where and when the accident occurred (date, time, location)
- Attending physician’s name and address (or office address)
A copy of this notice must be sent to the relevant government agency and the state attorney general. If the notice is not sent, any later-filed lawsuit will likely be dismissed by the court.
Damages Caps in Lawsuits Against the State
Pennsylvania limits the available damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit filed against the state. Under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8528, the total damages awarded to a plaintiff in a governmental lawsuit arising from one incident can’t exceed $250,000.
No Caps on Damages in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Other Than Against the State
In medical malpractice cases filed against defendants other than the government, Pennsylvania does not place a cap on compensatory damages. Some states do cap the noneconomic damages injured victims can recover, but Pennsylvania does not. This means that in Pennsylvania, a medical malpractice plaintiff might recover damages for all of their economic and non-economic losses without worrying about a cap.
Pennsylvania does place a cap on punitive damages, however. These are damages that are awarded in cases in which the defendant’s conduct was outrageous. If punitive damages are awarded, they can’t total more than two times the amount of the plaintiff’s total compensatory damages. However, punitive damages are rarely awarded in medical malpractice cases.
Certificate of Merit Requirement
One requirement you need to be aware of in Pennsylvania is the requirement that medical malpractice plaintiffs file a certificate of merit together with their lawsuits. This certificate certifies that the medical records and evidence have been reviewed by a medical expert who can opine that the doctor’s care fell below the expected standard of care and caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Because of this requirement, plaintiffs should retain the Philadelphia malpractice lawyers at Raynes & Lawn months before the relevant statute of limitations expires. Obtaining and reviewing all of the medical records can take some time, so it’s best not to wait until the limitations period is nearly up.
When to Speak to a Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Lawyer
Regardless of the statute of limitations, it is best to consult a medical malpractice attorney as soon as you learn that your injuries might have been caused by the medical negligence of a doctor or other healthcare professional. Retaining a lawyer early can give more time for the lawyer to investigate the case, consult a medical expert, gather documents, and prepare the lawsuit.
Speak to Our Attorneys
If you believe that your injuries might have been caused by the medical negligence of a doctor or another healthcare professional, you should talk to one of the experienced Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyers at Raynes & Lawn as soon as possible. We can help you understand the relevant statute of limitations that might apply to your case and explain the merits of your potential case. Call us for a free case evaluation today at 800-535-1797.
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