Texas High Court Upholds 10-Year Filing Period in Med-Mal Lawsuits

March 17, 2010

In a move Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott says validates Texas’ medical malpractice laws, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld the state’s 10-year limitation, or statute of repose, on filing medical malpractice lawsuits.

A 2003 law, House Bill 4, aimed at containing physicians’ medical malpractice insurance costs, prohibits plaintiffs from filing medical malpractice lawsuits more than a decade after the act upon which their suit is based.

In the Texas Supreme Court’s March 12 published opinion in Methodist Healthcare System of San Antonio v. Rankin, Justice Don Willett explained the basis for the underlying lawsuit:

“After experiencing abdominal pain, Emmalene Rankin consulted a physician in July 2006 and learned that a surgical sponge had been left inside her during a November 1995 hysterectomy. Rankin sued the hospital where the operation was performed, Southwest Texas Methodist Hospital, and two physicians, Robert and Wendell Schorlemer.”

Rankin found out about the surgical sponge more than 10 years after the surgery and filed her suit almost eleven years after the alleged negligence.

“The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that Rankin’s claim was barred by section 74.251(b) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, the ten-year statute of repose for healthcare-liability claims,” Willett wrote.

The trial court agreed with the defendants that the 10-year statute of reposed barred Rankin from going forward with the claim, but on appeal the statute was deemed unconstitutional.

Rankin argued that because the statute denied her the right to sue before she was able to discover her injury it was “unreasonable, and thus unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court, however, reasoned that while “term ‘statute of repose'” may not easily be defined, its intent is not to deny the plaintiff the right to sue.

Instead, “the key purpose of a repose statute is to eliminate uncertainties under the related statute of limitations and to create a final deadline for filing suit that is not subject to any exceptions, except perhaps those clear exceptions in the statute itself,” Willett wrote.

State legislators, in approving House Bill 4, “made a fundamental policy choice: the collective benefits of a definitive cut-off are more important than a particular plaintiff’s right to sue more than a decade after the alleged malpractice,” the Court concluded.

The case before the Texas Supreme Court questioned whether the Legislature had acted unreasonably or arbitrarily in enacting the 2003 law. But the Court conceded that it had not, stating: “We cannot brand as arbitrary lawmakers’ policy rationales for granting healthcare providers a substantive right to be free from liability after ten years, even if a plaintiff could have discovered her injury no sooner.”

Attorney General Abbott had filed an amicus brief in November 2009 defending the medical malpractice reform law.

The amicus brief authored by Solicitor General James Ho argued that “… our legal system does not remedy injuries in perpetuity. Evidence grows stale; eyewitnesses move; records become lost; and parties receive assurances that courts will not reexamine acts from the distant past that have long since faded from memory. The rule of law is served by clear rules – and that includes traditional rules governing the timing of suit.”

The Supreme Court agreed that the repose statute eliminates medical professionals’ uncertainty about their liability. It also noted that the Court has previously upheld challenges to Texas repose statutes in other cases, including those involving “claims against architects and engineers, an area of law where injuries may also be difficult to discover.”

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.