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CA Courts Rule on Statute of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Claims

Every state, including California, has statutes of limitations that govern when legal claims must be filed. The medical malpractice statute of limitations is three years from the date of the injury or one year from the date that the plaintiff learns that he or she has been injured or reasonably should have learned about the injury. However, the delayed discovery rule provides an exception to the statute of limitations in cases in which a person’s discovery of his or her injury’s cause is delayed for some period after the incident. In Brewer v. Remington, Cal. Ct. App., Case No. F076467, the court considered whether the delayed discovery rule applied when a woman became paralyzed after a routine surgery and subsequently sought treatment from a neurological surgeon.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Judith Brewer had carpal tunnel and shoulder surgery performed on April 22, 2013, at Doctors Medical in Modesto, California. The doctors who performed the surgical procedures were Drs. Bedi and Pistel. The morning after her surgery, Brewer suffered from paralysis and lost sensation in her arms and legs. She returned to Doctors Medical and had an MRI performed. The MRI revealed that she suffered from central cord syndrome, paraplegia, and incontinence and needed a cervical discectomy and extensive rehabilitation. Dr. Benjamin J. Remington saw Brewer on April 24, 2013. He noted in her chart that the functioning of Brewer’s lower extremities had further declined. Instead of performing an emergency spinal decompression procedure, Remington chose to wait to perform the surgery until May 30, 2013, to allow the swelling to go down.

Brewer underwent the spinal decompression procedure on May 30, 2013. After that, she regained some sensation in her arms and a little in her legs. However, her paraplegia was permanent. Brewer and her husband filed a lawsuit on June 9, 2014, against Drs. Bedi and Pistel, Doctors Medical, and Stanislaus Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Clinic for medical malpractice and loss of consortium because of the April 22, 2013, surgery.

In Oct. 2014, the plaintiffs sent discovery requests to Doctors Medical and the other defendants asking for copies of all of the medical records from Brewer’s surgery and subsequent treatment. Doctors Medical did not complete the discovery until July 8, 2015. When the plaintiffs received the records, they sent them to a neurosurgical expert named Dr. Brian Andrews. Upon his review of the medical records, Dr. Andrews opined on July 20, 2015, that Dr. Remington had breached the standard of care when he waited to perform the spinal decompression surgery until May 30, 2013. He stated that Dr. Remington should have performed the procedure as an emergency surgery on April 24, 2013, and that Brewer’s outcome would have been better if the doctor had not waited.

After receiving Dr. Andrews’ opinion, the Brewers filed a Doe amendment on July 24, 2015, to add Dr. Remington as a defendant in place of Doe 1. Remington filed an answer on Sept. 8, 2015. He filed a motion for summary judgment on Dec. 8, 2016, arguing that the plaintiffs had added him as a defendant outside of the statute of limitations. The court initially granted the motion for summary judgment. The Brewers filed a motion for a new trial, arguing the court had made a legal error in finding that their claims fell outside of the statute of limitations. Upon review, the court agreed that it had committed a legal error and granted the Brewers’ motion. Dr. Remington then filed an appeal of the trial court’s order granting a new trial.

Issue: Whether the Brewers’ claims against Remington should have been filed within one year of when she discovered her injury to fall inside the statute of limitations?

The plaintiffs argued that the one-year statute of limitations only began to run when they knew or should have reasonably known that the delay of surgery caused a second injury to Brewer. Since the discovery was not produced by Doctors Medical until July 8, which was outside of the one year from the date of Brewer’s second injury, they argued that they did not know or have any reason to know that Dr. Remington had caused the second injury until after they had received Dr. Andrews’ expert opinion. Dr. Remington argued that Brewer knew or should have reasonably known about her injury on May 30, 2013, when she didn’t regain many functions following the second surgery.

Rule: In a medical malpractice lawsuit, the statute of limitations is three years from the date of the injury or one year from the date that the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered his or her injury.

Under CCP § 340.5, the medical malpractice statute of limitations is either three years from the date of the injury or one year from the date that the victim discovers his or her injury or reasonably should have discovered it. Remington argued that the fact that Brewer knew that she was injured was controlling rather than when she knew what had caused her injury. He argued that the statute of limitations for the claims against him ran out on June 9, 2014, meaning that the Brewers’ claims against him were time-barred.

Analysis

The court reviewed the statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims. It noted that the statute of limitations starts to run when the last element of the cause of action accrues. The elements required for a statute of limitations to start running include a wrongful act, an injury, and causation.

In Gutierrez v. Mofid, 39 Cal.3d 895 (1985), the California Supreme Court held that an injury in the medical malpractice statute of limitations includes both the actual harm and the negligent cause of the injury.[2] This means that the one-year statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims will not begin running until the date that the plaintiff discovered or reasonably should have discovered both his or her injury and its likely cause. The court then applied the ruling from Guiterrez and applied it to Brewer’s case. The court found that Brewer could not have reasonably discovered her second injury that was caused by Remington until she had received the expert’s opinion about Remington’s negligence in July 2015.

The court noted that unsatisfactory outcomes by themselves are not enough to give a plaintiff notice of a doctor’s negligence. It found that the persistence of Brewer’s symptoms despite the care she received from Remington was not enough to trigger the statute of limitations. It found that the question of whether Brewer should have connected the persistence of her symptoms to Brewer’s actions was a question of fact that should be tried by a jury.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and returned the case for further proceedings. The plaintiffs were awarded their legal costs on appeal.

Get help from the attorneys at Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers

If you have suffered injuries that you believe were caused by a doctor’s negligence, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit. Because of the statute of limitations, you should act quickly. While the delayed discovery rule might allow you more time to file a lawsuit, it only applies when you did not discover your injury for some time after the fact. The attorneys at Steven M. Sweat, Personal Injury Lawyers can review your claim and advise you about the legal options that you might have. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation by calling 310.592.0445 or by filling out our online contact form.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/f076467.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-03-06-personal-injury-dce1bc23bf&utm_content=text-case-read-more-7

[2] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/supreme-court/3d/39/892.html

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