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Are Medical Malpractice Statutes of Limitations Unconstitutional?

A statute of limitation — sometimes called a statute of repose — is a limit placed on civil litigation. These limits restrict how long a plaintiff has to bring a valid case against a defendant. States have varying statutes of limitations, but many cap the restriction at only one or two years after the negligence occurs, or in some cases, only one or two years after the victim discovers the negligence occurred.

Other states have stricter limitations still; Pennsylvania, for example, had a statute of repose that capped all medical malpractice lawsuits at seven years regardless of whether or not a victim knows that it occurred. 

Many states are now asking whether or not these laws serve a public interest at all. Much of the reasoning behind them rests in trying to reduce the amount of increasing healthcare costs or ballooning premiums. It turns out there is little research to back these ideas.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently decided as much when, in a 4-3 ruling, it nixed the state’s seven-year statute of repose. The justices who struck it down explained that not only do these limitations have little to no effect on skyrocketing costs, but they also don’t do anything to protect the victims or the overall public good.

One of the three dissenting justices wrote that “it is not this court’s role to upend duly enacted legislation simply because we might sometimes deem it imperfect or unwise.”

That isn’t exactly true; America’s founding fathers created the three branches of government to check and balance each other. It is the court’s role to determine if and when the legislative branch has overstepped constitutional authority, and to strike down laws deemed to do so.

The case the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard in regard to the seven-year law involved a mother and son who were both victims to the same genetic liver disease. Even though the blood tests confirmed they both had the disease, the doctors allowed the son to donate a lobe of his liver to the mother — all without telling either one of them about the blood tests.

The mother discovered she still had the genetic liver disease that should have disappeared after the transplant — but it had already been eleven years, which restricted legal recourse because of the seven-year rule.

Their lawyer, Patrick Cavanaugh, 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.”

He continued, “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.”