The California medical negligence lawsuit filing deadline

Flores v. Intercommunity Hospital is an important California Supreme Court case providing guidance to difficult statute of limitation issues in professional negligence cases.

A doctor practicing at a Whittier, California, hospital ordered that a patient's bedrail be raised for safety after he assessed her medical condition. Later, when she tried to get up from the bed, the bedrail latch gave way, causing the safety rail to collapse, after which the patient fell onto the floor. Over a year later, alleging that she was injured during the incident, the woman filed a lawsuit against the hospital alleging negligence in equipment maintenance.

Professional v. general negligence

The case ended up before the California Supreme Court, which wrote an important opinion that clarified the statute of limitation, or filing deadline, for suits where the circumstances of the case fall arguably somewhere between one for professional negligence and one for premises liability or (nonprofessional) negligence.

Statutes of limitation

Under California statutes, the statute of limitation for filing an action for injury to an adult by professional negligence is the earlier of three years after the injury was suffered or one year after the patient knows he or she was injured or should have known "through the use of reasonable diligence." (A few exceptions apply related to fraud, concealment, presence of a foreign object in the body or a minor patient.)

On the other hand, state law imposes a two-year limitation on personal injury lawsuits alleging general negligence. This includes "premises liability", which is a type of negligence by a party, such as a business, responsible to safely maintain premises open to others, in failing keep the structure, furniture, or equipment in a safe condition, thereby injuring someone on the premises.

The Whittier hospital incident

In the 2016 case, Flores v. Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital, the California Supreme Court said in the collapsing-bedrail accident described above that the cause of action was one of professional negligence, and not general negligence or premises liability. Despite the similarity to premises liability scenarios and acknowledging that the line between the two kinds of cases can be fuzzy, the court said that the case was one of professional negligence. Consequently, the plaintiff had missed her deadline to file the case, which was one year from the date of injury, since she had been aware of it from the time it happened.

Professional services

The court said that the act happened "in the rendering of professional services," quoting the language of the applicable law. It reasoned that professional services encompass not only the highly skilled actions of a trained medical practitioner, but also tasks that are part of medical care, but that do not require actual medical skills. The opinion said by example that if a janitor accidently bumped an oxygen ventilator, disconnecting it from the patient, the subsequent injury would have happened in the course of professional services.

The court went on to conclude that when an injury involves negligent maintenance of hospital premises or equipment, whether the incident "qualifies as professional negligence depends on the nature of the relationship between the equipment or premises in question and the provision of medical care to the plaintiff."

Questions concerning the statute of limitation applicable to an injury that occurred in a hospital or during medical treatment should be directed to an experienced attorney as soon as possible to avoid missing a deadline. These cases can be very complicated and are not always easy to analyze, requiring legal experience and skill.

Medical malpractice lawyer Brian Burchett of The Burchett Law Firm, PC, in San Diego represents clients injured by medical negligence in Southern California and statewide.

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