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PA Supreme Court Rules Medical Malpractice Statute of Repose Unconstitutional

PA Supreme Court Rules Medical Malpractice Statute of Repose Unconstitutional

Statutes of limitations and statutes of repose are state laws that set time limits on the right to file a civil lawsuit, but there are a few key differences between these two kinds of laws.  While many people may be familiar with the term “statute of limitation”, they may not be as familiar with the term “statute of repose”.

State of Limitations

A “statute of limitations” is the time within which a party has to file their case in court.  The time limit within which to file a lawsuit (“statute of limitations”), begins ticking once the party knows of an incident that caused them injury.  In Pennsylvania, personal injury claims arising out of automobile crashes, slip and fall, premises liability, product liability, dog bite, or medical malpractice incidents must be filed within two (2) years of the event causing the injury.  If a claim is not filed within the applicable “statute of limitations”, the party is precluded from pursuing their claim against the responsible party.  In the criminal context, once the applicable “statute of limitations” expires for any alleged crime, the party alleged to have committed the crime may not be charged with committing that alleged crime.

One exception to the “statute of limitations” is known as the “discovery rule”.  The “discovery rule” tolls (or suspends) the period within which to file a lawsuit.  This means that the running of the statute of limitations "clock" is essentially paused if the potential plaintiff did not actually discover that he or she was harmed -- and could not reasonably have made that discovery -- right away. In those instances, the "clock" doesn't start running until the harm is actually (or should have reasonably been) discovered.  This situation often arises in medical malpractice claims where the party doesn’t know or have reason to know that a health care provider has been negligent and caused them to suffer an injury.  For example, the radiologist who fails to identify a finding of cancer which then goes untreated for several years and results in patient becoming ill.  The “discovery rule” would allow that patient to bring a claim, even if they didn’t discover the radiologist’s negligence until several years later when they are ultimately diagnosed with cancer.

Statute of Repose

A “statute of repose” is similar to a “statute of limitations” in that it provides a timeframe within which a lawsuit must be filed.  However, a “statute of repose” differs substantially from a “statute of limitations”. While a statute of limitations sets a lawsuit-filing time limit based on when the potential plaintiff suffered harm, a statute of repose sets a deadline within which to file a lawsuit based solely on the mere passage of time from the occurrence of a certain event giving rise to a lawsuit regardless of whether the injured party is aware of the event.

“Statutes of repose” most often apply to specific kinds of injury-related cases such as construction defect lawsuits or medical malpractice claims.  In Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania’s Medical Care Availability and Reduction Act (“MCARE Act”) Section 1303.513(a) established a seven (7) year “statute of repose”.  This meant that regardless of when you “discovered” you had been a victim of medical malpractice, if seven years from the date of the negligent event, had past, the injured party was precluded from filing a lawsuit against the negligent party.  The “discovery rule” is not applicable to “toll” a claim subject to a “statute of repose”.

Yankos v. UPMC

On October 31, 2019, a sharply divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down Section 1303.513(a) of the MCARE Act, in Yankos v. UPMC.  The majority of the Court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled that the seven (7) year “statute of repose” set forth in Section 1303.513(a) violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of open access to the courts.  In Yankos, Susan Yankos needed a liver transplant.  Her son, Christopher, agreed to donate a portion of his liver to his mother.  Christopher underwent a variety of tests to confirm that his liver was properly functioning and a good match to transplant into his mother.  Unbeknownst to the Yankos’, testing performed at UPMC revealed that Christopher’s liver did not function properly. Despite the problems with Christopher’s liver, UPMC proceeded with performing the transplant in 2003.  Eleven (11) years later, in June of 2014, the Yankos’ learned that they were both suffering from advanced liver disease.  In 2015 the Yankos’ filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against UPMC and the doctors involved.  UPMC and the doctors defended the claim alleging that it was time barred because of the expiration of the “statute of repose”.  The trial court (Court of Common Pleas) and appellate court (Superior Court) agreed with the doctors and UPMC’s position and dismissed the Yankos’ lawsuit.

The majority in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that although the government’s interest in controlling the rising costs related to medical care and medical malpractice insurance were important, there is no evidence that the MCARE Act’s seven (7) year “statute of repose” is substantially related to achieving those goals.  The Court found that the MCARE Act “statute of repose” “statute of repose” was repugnant to Article 1, Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution which guarantees that “[a]ll courts shall be open; and every man for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law[.]”  As a result of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling, the Yankos’ may now proceed with their lawsuit.

Accordingly, those injured by the negligence of hospitals, doctors, or other health care providers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will now have the right to pursue their claims against those who have injured them without fear that their meritorious claims will be barred by an arbitrary seven (7) year “statute of repose”.

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