State Court Expands Rights of Wronged Patients

A state Supreme Court decided to expand the rights of wronged patients in medical malpractice and negligence cases. The decision reinterprets the law so that the statute of limitations on raising a malpractice claim now begins once a patient knows the extent and cause of his injury in contrast to prior decisions stating that the statute of limitations began once symptoms were initially diagnosed.

The decision arose after a district court dismissed two claims of medical malpractice based on the expiration of the statute of limitations. In the first case, parents of a 16-year-old sued a facility for negligently prescribing Antabuse to treat the teen’s alcohol addiction. However, the suit alleged that the Antabuse caused long-term vomiting, jaundice, and irreversible liver damage. The district court ruled that, because the teen experienced severe symptoms beginning in March 1999 and the suit was not filed until April 2001, the two-year statute of limitations had expired. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision, reasoning that any diagnosis of liver damage did not occur until months after the she began experiencing symptoms.

In the second case, a woman sued several medical providers for misdiagnosing her breast cancer. The district court dismissed the case because she had been informed, five years prior to filing the action, that there was a lump in her breast. However, in overruling this decision, the Supreme Court noted that the woman had repeatedly been told that her lump was benign until a test revealed cancer one year prior to her suit.

In reaching these conclusions, the Supreme Court emphasized concerns over fairness to patients, doctors, and the medical malpractice industry. Ultimately, the Court found that the rights of medical practitioners were not significantly impaired where there was actual wrongdoing.

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