On February 21, 2018, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Appeals Court (“Massachusetts Appellate Court”) affirmed summary judgment for the defendant in a Massachusetts medical malpractice case in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant surgeon was negligent in performing her abdominal surgery that injured her ureter. The Massachusetts Appellate Court held that the plaintiff’s medical malpractice complaint was filed after the three-year statute of limitations for Massachusetts medical malpractice claims had expired.
The Underlying Facts
In 2012, the plaintiff was diagnosed with a form of diverticulitis and admitted to a Massachusetts hospital. On October 11, 2012, the defendant surgeon performed a laparoscopic sigmoid colectomy with low anterior anastomosis. The plaintiff suffered delirium, abdominal fluid drainage, and slow return of gastrointestinal function after her surgery. She was discharged from the hospital on October 22, 2012.
On October 30, 2012, the plaintiff was readmitted to the hospital because she was having chills, abdominal cramping, and vomiting. The defendant surgeon told the plaintiff that he thought there was a small bowel obstruction due to adhesions. The plaintiff had an exploratory laparotomy several days later. During her postoperative stay, the plaintiff developed a pulmonary embolus.
On November 8, 2012, the plaintiff was transferred to a tertiary care center, at her request, where a different surgeon diagnosed her as having leakage of urine from her left ureter into her left pelvis, caused by the defendant surgeon having severed the ureter during the October 11, 2012, surgery. The plaintiff subsequently endured multiple medical complications and interventions as a result.
On September 9, 2015, the plaintiff had an independent medical evaluation that concluded that the injury received when the defendant surgeon severed her ureter “was a substantial cause of [her] medical and surgical problems” but “that the severing of the ureter and the failure to discover and remedy the situation did not constitute malpractice.” At the time of the independent medical evaluation opinion, the plaintiff alleged that “[she] understood that initiating legal action against [the defendant] would be irresponsible and acting in bad faith and accordingly sought another independent evaluation of [her] situation since [she] continued[ ]to have further abdominal issues.”
The second independent evaluation occurred in September, 2016 and concluded that the defendant surgeon’s severing of the left ureter, and subsequent failure to recognize and remedy the injury, deviated from the standard of care.
The plaintiff filed her Massachusetts medical malpractice complaint on September 13, 2016. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff’s complaint was filed after the Massachusetts statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims had run. The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant, and the plaintiff appealed.
The Massachusetts Appellate Court Memorandum And Order
The Massachusetts Appellate Court stated that a Massachusetts medical malpractice action must be filed within three years after the cause of action accrues. G. L. c. 260, § 4. Under the “discovery rule” for medical malpractice claims, such a claim accrues when the plaintiff (1) knew or had sufficient notice that she was harmed; and (2) knew or had sufficient notice of the cause of the harm. It is not necessary that the plaintiff have notice that the defendant was actually responsible for the injury, only that she have knowledge or sufficient notice that the medical care given by the defendant may have caused the injury.
In determining whether a party has sufficient notice of causation, the inquiry is whether, based on the information available to the plaintiff, a reasonably prudent person in the plaintiff’s position should have discovered the cause of his or her injuries. Under the discovery rule, the plaintiff need not know the full extent of the injury before the statute starts to run.
The Massachusetts Appellate Court stated that if knowledge of the extent of injury were to control the accrual of a cause of action, the fixed time period of statutes of limitations effectively would be destroyed because the full extent of an injury often is not discoverable for many years after it has been incurred. The statute of limitations starts to run when an event or events have occurred that were reasonably likely to put the plaintiff on notice that someone may have caused her injury.
A plaintiff need not have notice of a breach of a duty before a cause of action may accrue. Once a plaintiff has (1) knowledge or sufficient notice that she was harmed and (2) knowledge or sufficient notice of what the cause of harm was, her claim accrues. Thus on notice, the potential litigant has the duty to discover from the legal, scientific, and medical communities whether the theory of causation is supportable and whether it supports a legal claim. Reasonable notice that a particular product or a particular act of another person may have been a cause of harm to a plaintiff creates a duty of inquiry and starts the running of the statute of limitations. G. L. c. 260, § 4 provides potential medical malpractice claimants three years from the date their claims accrued to determine whether they have viable causes of action.
The Massachusetts Appellate Court stated that when a plaintiff knew or should have known of her cause of action is normally a question of fact to be determined by the jury. However, where there is no genuine dispute of material fact, the issue may be decided on summary judgment.
In the case it was deciding, the Massachusetts Appellate Court stated that the plaintiff had admitted that as of March 22, 2013, she knew that the defendant surgeon’s having severed her ureter had caused her to have leakage of urine into her pelvis and resulted in the need for extensive additional surgeries and medical treatment. The Massachusetts Appellate Court held that the plaintiff “knew by March 22, 2013, that she had suffered these injuries (including the need for intrusive and burdensome treatments) and that the defendant had caused them. Her claim accrued by that date … it makes no difference that (drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor) the plaintiff did not learn until sometime after March 22, 2013, of all of the harms caused by the defendant.”
Source Melanson v. Swierzewski, 17-P-722
If you or a family member may have been harmed due to medical negligence in Massachusetts or elsewhere in the United States, you should promptly seek the advice of a local medical malpractice lawyer in your U.S. state who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you or your family member in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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