US Court of Appeals Reviews Federal Tort Claims Act Accrual Rule as to Medical-Malpractice Claims

When the government is the only defendant in a Federal Tort Claims Act, the statute of limitations is two years. It doesn’t matter whether the plaintiff — who is the injured party in a medical negligence case — was a minor at the time of the injury. The statute is clear in that it states that a claim accrues when the plaintiff discovers, or a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have discovered, that she had in fact been injured by an act or omission attributable to the government. The issue in this case was when the two-year countdown started.

Tenille Wallace’s medical-malpractice claim was against two defendants — the federally funded Friend Family Health Center and a private institution, the University of Chicago Hospital. The case presented the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals with a “new twist” on the usual scenario.

Wallace received prenatal care at the Friend Family Health Center. Her son, E.Y., had a troubled delivery and has been diagnosed as suffering from diplegic cerebral palsy. E.Y. was born at the University of Chicago Hospital on April 4, 2005.

The government substituted for the center under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). On appeal from an order that granted the government’s request for summary judgment, the 7th Circuit had to determine “when a medical-malpractice claim under the FTCA accrues when there are multiple potential tortfeasors, some governmental and some private.”

The court of appeals, in reviewing the evolution of the accrual standards for FTCA cases, reversed the summary judgment entered by the district court judge in favor of the government.

The deadline for Wallace’s claim against the Friend Center was two years under the FTCA. On Nov. 28, 2006, Wallace’s attorneys requested medical records from the center and the hospital. The center provided a partial set of prenatal records on Dec. 14, 2006, and Wallace filed a lawsuit against the center and the hospital on Dec. 10, 2008.

The United States argued that the two-year countdown started running in November 2006, when Wallace requested the records from the center. The government argued that Wallace filed the lawsuit two weeks too late.

Because the district judge reasoned that Wallace’s request for the medical records from Friend Family Health Center “indicated that she understood that the actions of center doctors could be related to E.Y.’s injuries” the motion was granted.

The court of appeals acknowledged that case law regarding when a medical-malpractice claim under the FTCA accrues has been evolving over the past several decades. At issue was when does the clock of the statute of limitations start. The standard has two alternative tests: A subjective one to focus on the plaintiff’s actual knowledge, and an objective one based on the knowledge of a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position.

Either form of knowledge is sufficient to start the clock on the statute of limitations. The court stated that to determine when a claim accrues, they must consider both when the plaintiff knew her injuries were caused and when a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position would have figured it out.

In this case, in applying the standard, accrual depends on when the plaintiff (or a reasonable person in the plaintiff’s position) would have actually discovered that the government is responsible for her injuries.

In Memmers v. United States, 795 F.2d 628 (7th Cir. 1986), we have also said that the statute of limitations starts to run “when the plaintiff has the information necessary to discovery both his injury and its cause.”

After the court reviewed cases spanning some 30 years, it held that a plaintiff’s medical-malpractice claim against the federal government accrues when either (1) the individual becomes subjectively aware of the government’s involvement in the injury, or (2) the individual acquires information that would prompt a reasonable person to inquire further into a potential government-related cause of the injury, whichever happens first. This case presents a new twist on this problem.

In prior cases, the government in a medical-malpractice under the FTCA was the only defendant. This case was different. Ms. Wallace received care from two different institutions, one governmental and one private. E.Y.’s injuries could have been the result of malpractice by either institute or both or neither.

The government argued that the court apply a simple rule that when a claimant expects any doctor-related cause for injury related that should trigger the statute of limitations as to all doctor-related causes for that injury, whether private or governmental.

The court of appeals did not think that to be a sound rule nor consistent with the reasoning of all prior case law.

In this case, the prenatal care that Wallace received at the Friend Family Health Center and the care she received at the University of Chicago Hospital differed in both time and place. A reasonable person would not have necessarily expected that the center’s care was negligent merely because she suspected that the hospital’s care was negligent, therefore, the court of appeals held that the district court erred in granting the summary judgment for the government on the ground that Ms. Wallace’s suit was untimely.

E.Y. ex rel. Wallace v. United States, No. 13-2854 (U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Cir., July 10, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical malpractice lawsuits, birth injury lawsuits and nursing home negligence lawsuits for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Naperville, Wheaton, Hinsdale, Oak Lawn, Oak Forest, Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights, Melrose Park, Highland Park, Harwood Heights, Chicago (Bronzeville, Jefferson Park, Albany Park, Irving Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, Old Town, Goose Island, Greek Town, Garfield Park, Lawndale), Elmwood Park and River Forest, Ill.

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