Close call in some California medical negligence filing deadline cases

The case clarified how to analyze the statute of limitations when an injury is alleged to have been caused by a piece of equipment on medical premises.

The California Supreme Court decided an important case in 2016 concerning the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases. The issue was whether an alleged patient injury from the collapse of a hospital bed rail fell under the statute of limitations - meaning the deadline for filing a lawsuit - for medical malpractice, or under the statute of limitations for general negligence or premises liability claims.

The answer to the question was significant to this injured patient: one year for medical malpractice , calculated from the day the patient knew or should have known of an injury, or two years for general negligence or premises liability. The plaintiff had filed later than one year, but just before two years from the date of injury, so she would have been too late to maintain a medical malpractice case, but not too late for general negligence.

The California statute setting out the statute of limitations for medical malpractice says that a claim must be filed within three years from the date of injury or one year after the patient discovers or reasonably should discover the alleged injury, whichever is first. In this case, because the patient would have known she was injured when the mishap happened, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice would be one year.

There are pros and cons associated with each kind of claim, depending on the circumstances and views of the involved parties. For medical malpractice, there is not as long a time to file a suit, plus damages for noneconomic damages like pain and suffering are capped at $250,000. In a negligence claim, there is a longer statute of limitations and no noneconomic damage cap.

The "integrally related" standard of Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital

In Flores, the doctor ordered the bed rail raised after he had assessed the patient's medical condition. Even though the alleged negligence concerned whether the medical equipment was negligently maintained or inspected, causing the rail to collapse, because the equipment was necessary to "implement the doctor's order concerning her medical treatment," the court held that it was medical negligence, rather than ordinary.

The court opinion reasoned that the answer fell within the meaning of the language in the medical negligence statute that such a claim arises in the "rendering of professional services," here meaning the "provision of medical care to patients."

The court pointed out that whether a piece of equipment at a hospital which fails and injures someone falls under medical negligence or general negligence depends on whether the use of the equipment was "integrally related" to the medical care and treatment. In this case, because the doctor ordered the rail used to protect the patient's medical condition, the Supreme Court held that it was medical negligence.

The opinion points out that the test is not whether the equipment is on the premises of a hospital. If a negligently maintained chair in a waiting room collapsed and injured a member of the public, that would obviously be general negligence. It could not be medical negligence because the person was not receiving medical care and that chair was not integrally related to the receipt of medical treatment.

Clearly, questions involving the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases or injury cases that occur on the premises of a hospital, clinic or doctor's office can become quite complex, depending on the circumstances. It is important that anyone who sustains such an injury talk to a lawyer as soon as possible so as not to miss any filing deadlines and preserve the right to sue.

The lawyers at Nield Law Group, APC, in Encinitas, California, and with five other offices represent clients in medical malpractice cases who have been injured in the provision of professional medical or dental services.