Are Personal Injury Statutes Of Limitations Absolute?

Many states have started to ask a complex set of legal questions: Are statutes of limitations laws unconstitutional, and do they serve the overall public good? State supreme court justices are hearing more and more cases based on these two questions, and giving sometimes equally complicated and nuanced answers. There are many different types of statutes on the books. 

Criminal statutes of limitations restrict how long the district attorney has to prosecute an individual for a crime committed, whether the D.A. knew about it in time or not. These restrictions are generally in proportion to the severity of the crime. There might be no statute of limitations on murder, while there might be a four-year statute of limitations for petty theft. 

And maybe those laws make sense.

But can the same thing be said for medical malpractice or personal injury statutes of limitations? Judges are divided. 

The laws restrict how long a plaintiff has to bring a case against a healthcare provider for negligence. The reasoning behind these civil litigation restrictions is that they could limit already skyrocketing healthcare and premium costs. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the restrictions don’t serve the intended purpose, and that plaintiffs should have as much time as they need to make a case.

This was the situation. One man’s mother had a genetic liver disease. To survive, she required a healthy liver lobe transplant. What loving son wouldn’t do this for his mother? So he made an appointment with the hospital to find out if he could offer a piece of liver lobe to his mother. The doctors said yes. The procedure was performed.

The twist?

The son’s blood tests proved that he had the exact same genetic liver disease as his mother. The doctors knew about it, but failed to tell either of their patients about the test results, and then they performed the transplant anyway. Now both mother and son could need liver transplants in the future, but, in the son’s case, that could be made more difficult by the transplant operation already performed. 

The mother discovered she still had the liver disease eleven years later. Pennsylvania’s seven-year statute of repose law restricted what they could do. Eventually, the family took their case to the Supreme Court, which subsequently struck down the law.

Not everyone agreed with the court’s decision.

One of the dissenting justices wrote, “It is not this court’s role to upend duly enacted legislation simply because we might sometimes deem it imperfect or unwise.”

But lawyers are arguing the opposite — that the role of the judicial branch of American government was created for exactly that purpose: Limiting the power of the legislative branch, and overturning unconstitutional (“imperfect or unwise” laws, as it were) whenever necessary for the public good.