Federal Case Highlights the Importance of Understanding Statutes of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Actions

When you seek medical care in Massachusetts, you expect the procedure or treatment to help you heal. However, if a physician’s or hospital’s actions lead to medical malpractice, it can worsen prior health conditions or result in death. A 2014 Federal First Circuit Court of Appeals case, Sanchez v. United States, underlines how essential it is for you to have knowledgeable counsel at your side.

All personal injury lawsuits filed in Massachusetts must adhere to the statute of limitations, a deadline imposed by law to ensure timely claims that are not subject to memory lapses and loss of evidence. In Sanchez, a woman who had given birth to her third child through caesarean section died two days after the birth. The lawsuit initiated by her estate in Massachusetts state court sued both the obstetrician and anesthesiologist and was filed nearly three years after the death of the mother. The estate met the three-year statute of limitations under Massachusetts state law, but the doctors were federal employees and covered under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which limits the timeframe for lawsuits to two years.

In the decision, the Court explained that, while the doctors may have appeared to work for a nongovernmental agency, any doctor who works for a facility that receives federal funds is considered a federal employee. The Court also reviewed the history of the FTCA, which allows lawsuits to move forward under federal jurisdiction if they were filed within two years in the state court system. The Court of Appeals did not believe the actions taken in the lawsuit by the estate’s attorneys showed due diligence in researching the hospital and its doctor employees to determine the best course of legal action.

The statute of limitations under the FTCA allows claims to accrue at a date outside the two-year period if the injury was discovered at a later date, or if information about the condition was discovered later. The Court was not swayed by the estate’s argument that the nature of the injury was not fully discovered until April 2010, for the cause of the woman’s death was essentially the same immediately after she died as it was a year after her death. The court measured the actions of the woman’s husband against the behavior of a “reasonable person”, particularly his decision to retain counsel within a year after her death. If a reasonable person would have questioned the death and whether there was negligence within the two-year period, the deadline remains intact. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and the estate was unable to pursue the medical negligence claim against the doctors.

The Massachusetts medical malpractice attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the necessary experience you need to choose the best legal course of action and maximize the recovery you deserve. If you have been seriously injured during an operation or procedure, contact our office today at (508) 822-6600 for a free, confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Understanding Medical Reports in Massachusetts Car Accident Trials, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, July 30, 2014
When are Punitive Damages Available under Massachusetts Law?, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, July 21, 2014