Law & Medicine

Law & Medicine: Discovery rule and statute of limitations



Question: In July 2002, a patient in California underwent surgery for a herniated T8-9 disk, but the surgeon instead removed the T6-7 and T7-8 disks. On Sept. 11, 2002, the surgeon discussed with the patient the MRI findings showing his mistake. On Sept. 17, 2003, the patient filed a malpractice lawsuit, just 6 days beyond California’s 1-year limitations period. California subscribes to the discovery rule, that is, a cause of action accrues only when a claimant discovers or should have discovered injury was the result of negligence.

Which of the following choices is best?

A. The lawsuit filed Sept. 17, 2003, is time barred, as the negligent surgery took place in July 2002.

B. On its face, the lawsuit was filed too late, being 1 year and 6 days after the Sept. 11, 2002, discussion date.

C. The lawsuit was timely filed, so long as the claimant can prove he was out of town for more than 6 days of that year.

D. The patient should sue as an action in battery, which has a longer statute of limitations.

E. All choices except A are correct.

Answer: E. At common law, there was no time limit that barred a plaintiff from bringing a claim, although an equitable doctrine of laches existed to foreclose an action that had long lapsed. Statutory changes in the law now require that lawsuits be brought in a timely manner so that the evidence remains fresh, accurate, and reliable.

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Dr. S.Y. Tan

Another reason is to provide repose to the wrongdoer, that is, relief from worrying for an indefinite period of time whether a lawsuit will be brought. This time period, during which a lawsuit must be filed or it will be barred, is termed the statute of limitations. It is 2 years for the tort of negligence in most jurisdictions, with states such as California and Tennessee placing a 1-year limit on medical malpractice claims. In California, the running of the statute is tolled (temporarily halted) for the days a claimant is out of state.

The above case scenario is taken from Kaplan v. Mamelak,1 where the plaintiff’s lawsuit was not barred to allow him to identify the number of days he was out of town. The court also permitted a cause of action in battery, which is covered under a longer statute of limitations, as well as one sounding in malpractice.

Patients who are injured from malpractice may not always be aware that a negligent act had taken place, and some injuries may remain latent for a long period. Recognizing this, statutes of limitation emphasize the date when the plaintiff first discovered that the injury resulted from negligence. This is termed the discovery rule.

Stated more formally, the limitations period commences at the time the cause of action (negligence or other wrongs) accrues, and this usually means when the claimant knew (actual knowledge) or should have known (constructive knowledge).

The rule, in the words of one court, is meant to balance the need for “prompt assertion of claims” against a policy “favoring adjudication of claims on the merits and ensuring that a party with a valid claim will be given an opportunity to present it.”

As is typical of other jurisdictions, Hawaii sought to clarify the discovery rule in a series of court cases, beginning with Yoshizaki v. Hilo Hospital,2 where the court deemed a cause of action “does not begin to run until the plaintiff knew or should have known of the defendant’s negligence.”

Subsequently, Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals explained that the state’s 2-year limitations statute commences when the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, 1) the damage; 2) the violation of the duty; and 3) the causal connection between the violation of the duty and the damage.3

The court subsequently held that the rule prevents the running of the limitations period until “the plaintiff [has] knowledge of those facts which are necessary for an actionable claim.”4 In 1999, the Hawaii Supreme Court clarified that it was “factual knowledge,” rather than “legal knowledge,” that starts the clock running, and that legal knowledge of a defendant’s negligence was not required.5

More recently, litigation over the time barring of claims was evident in Moon v. Rhode,6 where Dr. Clarissa Rhode and Central Illinois Radiological Associates were sued for negligently misreading a patient’s CT scans.

The 90-year-old patient, Kathryn Moon, was admitted to Proctor Hospital May 18, 2009, and died 11 days later following surgery and complications of fluid overload and a pneumoperitoneum. Dr. Rhode, a radiologist, interpreted two CT scans, which an independent expert in 2013 determined were negligently misread. A lawsuit was then brought against Dr. Rhode, who was not a named defendant when the plaintiff had timely filed a medical negligence action back in 2011 against the surgeon and the attending doctor.


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