One of the most maddening aspects of medical malpractice cases are the limitations and restrictions placed on the victims. You recently learned that an operation you had ten years ago left you with severe internal damage today? In many states, tough luck. A statute of limitations often caps lawsuits at two years after the initial damage was done. In some states you have one or two years from the time you realized that malpractice had occurred.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that these arbitrary time limits are pulled from thin air and do relatively little to serve the public good.
The court, in a 4-3 ruling, said that the statute of repose was unconstitutional. The reasoning? Repose statutes violate a court’s right of access. They do nothing to control skyrocketing costs or premiums — and they certainly do nothing to help the victims of medical malpractice cases.
The ruling stemmed from a Pittsburgh case against two physicians who allegedly ignored tests. They used a woman’s son’s liver during a transplant even though they both had the exact same genetic liver disease.
Patrick Cavanaugh was an attorney working for the Yanakos family, the victims. He said, “The family felt aggrieved that their case was barred because of the arbitrary seven-year limitation, and they’re glad to be able to assert their rights in court.”
The court ruled in the family’s favor when discovery documents showed that the physicians knew about the son’s test results, but failed to tell him. They proceeded with the transplant of the donated liver lobe. It was eleven years before they discovered that the mother was still a victim of the same disease that had landed her in the hospital the first time. That eleven years far exceeded the seven-year limitation placed on medical malpractice cases.
Cavanaugh said, “The family assumed that if the liver transplant went forward, the doctors would use a healthy liver. It was a safe assumption by the family that Christopher didn’t have AATD, but in fact he did. There’s no way the plaintiffs could have found all that out within seven years.”
A dissenting justice wrote that “it is not this court’s role to upend duly enacted legislation simply because we might sometimes deem it imperfect or unwise.”
But in reality that’s the entire point of Supreme Courts across the land — to determine whether or not laws already on the books actually make sense for the greater good, and to “upend” that duly enacted legislation to “check and balance” legislative overreach. Like the founders intended.