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Defendant Must Show Claim Was Filed Beyond Statutory Time Limit After Plaintiff Discovered that Course of Treatment, Not Specific Procedure, Was Negligent


A woman’s colon was perforated during a colonoscopy. The doctor who performed the colonoscopy and others in his practice group performed a series of operations to treat the perforation and resulting infection. The woman’s condition worsened. The woman discontinued treatment by this practice group at this medical facility.

 

Two years and three months after discontinuing treatment, the woman sued the practice group and medical facility for medical malpractice. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the woman’s claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the claim for failure to file within the period allowed by the statute of limitations. The plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals reversed the district court holding that the defendant failed to show that the plaintiff knew or should have known which procedure caused her injuries more than two years before she filed her complaint.

 

The Supreme Court of Utah affirmed the court of appeals’ decision, though based on different reasoning, and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. The court affirmed the court of appeals’ conclusion that the defendant failed to show that the plaintiff filed her claim more than two years after she discovered or should have discovered her legal injury. However, the court held that when a plaintiff has alleged a course of negligent medical treatment, to show that the claim is barred by the two-year statute of limitations the defendant must demonstrate that the plaintiff filed her claim more than two years after she discovered that the course of treatment was negligent. The court of appeals erred when it held that the defendant must show that the plaintiff knew or should have known which specific procedure in a course of treatment caused her injuries more than two years before she filed her complaint.

 

The Supreme Court noted that a patient's knowledge that she has suffered complications from a medical treatment or procedure is insufficient to trigger the two-year statute of limitations applicable to medical malpractice suits. The patient's mere suspicion that her doctor was negligent is insufficient to trigger the statute. The plaintiff need not have certain knowledge of negligence in order to have “discovered” it. Rather, all that is necessary is that the plaintiff be aware of facts that would lead an ordinary person, using reasonable diligence, to conclude that a claim for negligence may exist. Also, the plaintiff's initiation of an investigation to determine whether her injury was the result of negligence is insufficient to trigger the statute. In this situation, the statute is triggered only when the plaintiff's investigation has revealed facts that would lead an ordinary person, using reasonable diligence, to conclude that a claim for negligence may exist.

 

The Court reasoned that a patient who suffers from complications after undergoing multiple medical treatments or numerous medical procedures may be aware that she has been injured and that her injury is the result of negligence, but she has not necessarily discovered her legal injury. She has not identified the causal event that caused her injury because she has not yet sufficiently tied it to its source in a specific course of medical treatment. The court concluded that in such a situation the two-year statute of limitations is not triggered.

 

However, when a plaintiff alleges that a single course of treatment was negligent, a defendant can point to the date that the plaintiff discovered that the course of treatment was negligent to show that the malpractice action is barred by the two-year statute of limitations. A defendant need not show that the plaintiff ever discovered that a particular procedure within the course of treatment was negligent.

 

The defendant need not point to a specific procedure within a course of treatment when arguing a claim is time-barred. Such a rule would require defendants to admit that a particular procedure was performed negligently.

 

Because genuine issues of material fact existed as to when the patient discovered or should have discovered that her medical complications arising from her perforated colon and procedures to repair the perforation were caused by the doctor's negligence, summary judgment for the doctor on limitations grounds in the medical malpractice suit was precluded and the action was remanded.

 

See: Arnold v. White, 2012 UT 61, 2012 WL 4357429 (Utah September 25, 2012) (not designated for publication).

 

 

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