BY: Kenneth T. Watkins | IN: Medical Malpractice
Every personal injury lawsuit is subject to a statute of limitations, which requires the claim to be filed within a specific timeframe. For example, you have three years from the date of a Michigan car accident to file suit. If the timeline expires, you might have a case against your attorney for legal malpractice, but you are no longer entitled to have your original claim heard in court.
However, time limits get complicated in a medical malpractice context. Unlike most personal injury settings where a plaintiff is immediately aware they’ve been hurt, it can take years and even decades for a medical malpractice victim to realize the harm they’ve endured.
For this reason, Michigan law allows for a suit to be filed either two years from the date that the alleged malpractice occurred or within 6 months from the date that the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered the existence of a claim, whichever date is later. Referred to as the discovery rule, this six-month caveat accounts for situations where it’s tricky to determine the precise moment the clock begins running.
While most dismissals on statute of limitations grounds are finite, the discovery rule opens the door to potential appeal. Plaintiffs may argue they became aware of an injury following a certain diagnostic test, while the defense argues they should have suspected it several months earlier. In a dispute like this, it’s always possible for a judge’s decision to be challenged.
For example, in August 2021, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the dismissal of a patient’s allegedly late-filed complaint. In that case – Bowman vs. St. John Hospital & Medical Center – the defendants falsely informed the plaintiff in 2013 that a growth in her breast was benign. In the two years following the defendant’s statement, the plaintiff felt the lump grow and eventually sought follow-up care with another provider.
In May 2015, the plaintiff was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy revealing the cancer had spread to a lymph node. Seeking a second opinion in August 2016, the plaintiff was told the defendants might have misread the 2013 mammogram. A notice of intent to sue the providers for failing to diagnose the cancer was sent within the next six months.
The defendants argued the statute of limitations had expired. The plaintiff claimed the six-month discovery period only began to run when she was directly informed of the malpractice. The defendants claimed she should have known malpractice occurred the moment she was diagnosed with cancer.
While the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the appellate court granted it, opining the patient “at all times knew exactly what her medical history was. She knew of her breast lump, knew that it was in the same location as it was at the time of the 2013 mammogram, and knew that it had grown larger. She did not lack any relevant data about her condition.”
The woman died shortly after the Michigan Court of Appeals issued its opinion. As the executor of her estate, her husband replaced her as the plaintiff and appealed the court’s ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Ultimately, the state’s high court found in the plaintiff’s favor. Their decision began by acknowledging that the date of accrual in a malpractice context is not always straightforward, going on to detail the complex history of the state’s discovery rule. Arriving at the current rule’s focus on patient diligence, the court explained that diligence has both subjective and objective components.
In the plaintiff’s case, while she had the knowledge to determine malpractice occurred before meeting with the specialist, the question is whether she “should have” made that conclusion. Although the cancerous lump was in the same place as the one the defendants treated, the court could not assume without evidence that the plaintiff would understand how tumors grow. As a result, the court reversed the intermediate court’s dismissal.
If you believe inadequate medical care caused harm or contributed to a worsening of your condition, you should reach out to a Michigan medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible.
The dedicated team of medical malpractice attorneys at Sommers Schwartz enjoys a nationwide reputation for excellence. We routinely handle some of the most complex and contested medical negligence cases in the country. To learn more and schedule a free consultation, call us at 800-783-1649 today. You can also reach us through our online contact form.
View all posts byKenneth T. Watkins
Kenneth T. Watkins is an accomplished trial attorney and Senior Shareholder with Sommers Schwartz. Over the course of his career, he has obtained numerous multimillion-dollar settlements. His achievements include one of the largest seven-digit medical malpractice cases in Macomb County in 2008, and his election to membership in the exclusive Million Dollar Verdict Club.