A recent opinion from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court clarified the statute of limitations - the time limit for filing a lawsuit - in cases where a person dies because of medical negligence. Justice Sallie Mundy wrote the opinion in the case of Dubose v. Quinlan. Although the two-year statute of limitations remains the same, when it begins to run was the crux of the opinion. It now begins to run from the time of death.
Previously, in fatal cases of medical malpractice, the limitations period began to run at the time of the injury that caused the death. This is the norm in personal injury cases. The court found that applying this standard to medical negligence death cases was inappropriate.
To illustrate, a surgical error results in an instrument being left inside a patient. This error leads to complications and an infection, and the patient dies six months later. Under previous application of the law, the patient's surviving relatives had to have taken legal action within two years from the date of the surgical error. Now, in light of the recent ruling, the survivors must file within two years from the date of the patient's death. In the example, the family now has an extra six months to commence legal action.
The opinion in this case opens the door for survivors to re-examine cases in which a loved one died as a result of medical negligence. This could be anything from a misdiagnosis or anesthesia error to being given the wrong medication. If there was a gap in time between the death and the act that caused it, surviving family members now have additional time to consult an experienced medical malpractice attorney about legal action.