Medical malpractice law in our state is constantly evolving. Indeed, a recent Pennsylvania court decision seems to change the definition of the phrase “cause of death.”
A patient went to their primary care doctor for a CT scan. The scan was reviewed by a radiologist, who gave a radiology report to the doctor. It did not indicate any issues, but within five days, the patient died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. After years of pretrial litigation, the radiologist was finally deposed, where it was revealed that he told the doctor that he saw an abdominal aortic aneurysm, but he could not get the equipment to take a clear picture of it. As such, the patients surviving family filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctor as well. This meant there were now two cases, one against the radiologist for not seeing the aneurysm, and another, separate case against the doctor based on the radiologist’s deposition.
Statute of limitations
In our state, the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act has a statute of limitations that limits wrongful death lawsuits to 2 years from the date of death, though, those 2 years do not apply where there was an affirmative misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment of the cause of death occurred. The trial court agreed with the doctor’s attorneys that the MCARE barred the case against him, but the Superior Court disagreed.
The issue was the meaning of, “cause of death.” Generally, this term refers to the cause on the death certificate, which, in this case, was correct. Nonetheless, the Superior Court used a broader interpretation. They found that the concealment of the communications on the aneurysm between the doctors directly related to the cause of death, so the tolling provision should allow for the later filing. The higher court found that since the MCARE did not definitively define, “cause of death,” this broader definition was just as reasonable as the generally accepted definition.
This was especially true because MCARE specifically stated that this tolling provision recognizes that wrongful death and survival actions may involve situations where the patient’s interest in fair compensation outweighs the interest in limiting medical malpractice insurance costs. Accordingly, the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit was overturned.
Not settled law, yet
For our Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, readers that believe this may help their case, do not rejoice yet. The doctor has appealed this to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who may or may not agree with the Superior Court.