Two-Year Statute of Limitations Applies to Minors Under the Federal Tort Claims Act; Arteaga v. United States

The Seventh Circuit U.S. Circuit of Appeals has affirmed a decision by a federal court judge regarding the statute of limitations in Federal Tort Claims Act cases. 

In this case, the plaintiff’s attorney did not inform the plaintiff that the two-year statute of limitations for claims filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act was not tolled because of the minority of the plaintiff.

Gabriela Arteaga gave birth to an 11-pound baby girl in July 2004 at the Erie Family Health Center.  The baby’s shoulders became stuck, which led to the child’s birth injury. A few months after the birth, Arteaga received the medical records and consulted a lawyer. The first lawyer to review the case did not believe that the injury was caused by medical negligence.

Arteaga saw a second lawyer in October 2006 who agreed to represent her but then withdrew in February 2008.Prior to withdrawing from the case, the lawyer told Arteaga that the statute of limitation in Illinois for a tort case was eight years due to the fact that the injured child was a minor. Although that is true for Illinois cases, under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), the statute of limitations even for minors is two years.

In June 2009, Arteaga sought the services of a third lawyer, who referred her to a fourth and final lawyer. The fourth lawyer agreed to take the case and obtained a medical opinion stating that the Erie employees’ negligence may have caused the child’s injury. 

The medical negligence occurred when the physicians chose not to inform Arteaga that the baby’s birth weight would exceed what was considered safe for vaginal delivery. In March 2010, Arteaga filed a state lawsuit on those grounds against the Erie Family Health Center and the center’s nurse-midwives. 

Although Erie is a private enterprise, its employees are deemed to be federal employees because it receives grant money from the U.S. Public Health Service. Accordingly, any tort against Erie or its employees can be maintained only under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which carries a two-year statute of limitations. 

The first recognized legal error was filing a lawsuit without first obtaining the requisite federal administration claim with the Department of Health and Human Services. The case was removed from state court to the federal district court in Chicago. The district court judge dismissed Arteaga’s suit without prejudice, on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. 

Arteaga then refiled the lawsuit in the federal district court under the Federal Tort Claims Act in December 2010. Then the government moved to dismiss the case because the lawsuit had been filed after the expiration of a two-year statute of limitations.  The district court agreed and dismissed the case. 

On appeal, Arteaga argued that she didn’t know of the right to sue until December 2009 when she first learned that the injury to her child might have been caused by negligence. That argument was rejected citing the case of the United States v. Kubrick, where it was said that the statute of limitations begins to run when a plaintiff has knowledge of an injury.In this case, Arteaga knew shortly after giving birth in 2004 that her daughter was injured. 

Arteaga also had argued that she did not know that Erie could only be sued in federal court under the FTCA. She maintained that Erie had concealed its federal status, which justified tolling the statute of limitations.

The court of appeals acknowledged that there is equitable tolling in some cases. It is a rebuttable presumption. However, the court of appeals stated that Erie did not conceal its federal status in this instance. The court also stated that the Arteaga lawyer should have known that the statute of limitations under the FTCA is two years, not eight. 

The trial judge’s order dismissing the case was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Gabriela Arteaga v. United States, No. 12-3189 (April 1, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling birth injury cases and medical malpractice matters for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Chicago (Mount Greenwood), Chicago (Humboldt Park), Harwood Heights, Chicago (Bronzeville), Brookfield, Yorkfield, Western Springs, Palos Park, Hickory Hills, Chicago (Jefferson Park) and Des Plaines, Ill.

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