Why Understanding the Statute of Limitations Matters: Injured Patient Loses Easy Med Mal Case as Untimely

injured patient on stretcher Photo Source: Adobe Stock Image

Statutes of limitations are an important feature of nearly every legal claim, but most non-lawyers know little about them. Failing to adhere to the statute of limitations can be fatal to a plaintiff’s case. A recent case provides an unfortunate illustration of the importance of obeying the applicable statute of limitations: A California appeals court tossed out an injured patient’s clear medical malpractice claim because the plaintiff waited too long to assert her rights.

The case concerned allegations that the defendant physician failed to diagnose the plaintiff’s fungal infection. In September 2015, the defendant reviewed a CT scan of the plaintiff’s sinuses. Although the scan clearly showed the presence of a fungal ball in the plaintiff’s right sinus, the doctor failed to notice and make the appropriate diagnosis. Continuing to deal with worsening symptoms, the plaintiff sought a second opinion and discovered the infection in 2016. She did not file her lawsuit until 2020. According to the court, the plaintiff waited too long after beginning to suspect the doctor’s mistake to file the instant complaint.

The statute of limitations is the time limit for bringing a legal claim. There are statutes of limitation for every type of legal claim, civil or criminal. The specific time limit varies depending on the nature of the claim and the state or federal law applicable to the claim. Anyone who believes they may have a right of action against another party should be wary of waiting too long to bring their case--courts are all-too-willing to toss out a case brought after the limitations period has expired, even when the case would otherwise be a slam-dunk.

In California, the standard statute of limitations for most personal injury claims is two years. After a car accident, for example, an injured victim has two years from the date of the crash to bring a claim. Determining the exact limitations period, however, is not always so clear-cut.

The statute of limitations for a medical malpractice case in California is either one year or three years, depending upon the claim. The plaintiff has either three years from the date of the injury or one year from the date the patient discovered or should have discovered their injury, whichever is earlier.

Medical malpractice claims are complicated because patients might not even realize they’ve suffered an injury at first. For instance, when does a “failure to diagnose” injury even occur? When the illness first manifests itself? On the last date the plaintiff saw the negligent doctor? When the plaintiff starts to notice symptoms that might be connected to an undiagnosed condition? How can the plaintiff know that a doctor should have caught their condition earlier?

Certain circumstances van “toll” or pause the limitations clock, such as if the defendant fraudulently concealed the malpractice or the injured plaintiff was under the age of 18 at the time of the injury. In California, a medical malpractice plaintiff must notify the defendant healthcare provider at least 90 days in advance of their intention to file a claim. If the notice is provided before the statute of limitations is up, but within 90 days of the outside limit, the limitations period will be extended until the end of the 90 days.

In this instance, the plaintiff simply waited too long. The original failure to diagnose occurred in 2015. The plaintiff claimed that she did not definitively realize she had been misdiagnosed until 2018 when a different physician pointed out that her original CT scan from 2015 showed her fungal infection.

The court was unsympathetic. On appeal, the court held that the limitations period started when she had reason to suspect wrongdoing, not when she learned precisely how the defendant had failed her. Here, the clock started ticking when the plaintiff realized she needed a second opinion regarding her sinus issues, back in December 2016; she admitted to suspecting her original doctor had missed something. She had one year from that date to file her claim, and she failed to do so.

The case is an unfortunate reminder of the importance of understanding your legal rights. As explained by the court: “When plaintiff learned she had a fungal ball in her sinus in 2016,” she

“became aware of” the misdiagnosis.” The plaintiff “then had a duty to ‘find the facts.’ Instead, plaintiff waited for the facts to find her, and missed her opportunity to pursue her malpractice claim.”

Christopher Hazlehurst, J.D.
Christopher Hazlehurst, J.D.
Christopher Hazlehurst is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he served as Editor of the Columbia Law Review. In his law practice, he has handled a wide range of complex commercial litigation and white-collar criminal and regulatory investigations, while remaining deeply engaged in public interest matters across the country. He is currently licensed to practice law in California.
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