Although most people have a basic understanding of the effect a statute of limitations has on a person’s ability to bring suit, the application of a statute of limitations can often be more complicated than expected. For instance, the Fourth District Court of Appeal recently ruled in an interesting case that involved when the statute of limitations begins to run when the injured party is incapacitated and, as a result, needs to have a guardian appointed.
The decision, Barrier v. JFK Medical Center Limited P’ship, arose from an alleged case of medical negligence that occurred in 2010. The plaintiff in this action is the mother, and legally appointed guardian, of the injured person. Her adult son had been transported to a hospital from a substance abuse facility after he attempted to commit suicide. Fewer than 10 hours after his discharge, the same substance abuse facility contacted the hospital to report that the patient was in a lethargic state and unresponsive. He was returned to the hospital, where drugs were discovered in his possession. Within two hours of his arrival, he was discharged again and into the custody of the police. While in police detention, he suffered from a cardiac arrest resulting from a drug overdose and went into a coma from which he has not emerged.
Following this string of events, his mother filed for temporary emergency guardianship in order to make medical decisions. Before the expiration of the temporary guardianship, the son was ruled incompetent, and his mother was appointed permanent guardian. About two years later, she filed a notice of intent to bring a medical negligence suit against the hospital and other parties pursuant to Section 766.104(2) of the Florida Statutes. All the defendants answered and moved for summary judgment, arguing that the two-year statute of limitations for bringing suit had run. See § 95.11(4)(b), Fla. Stat. (2010). The defendants contended that the statute of limitations began to run from the moment the mother was appointed temporary guardian, but the mother argued that the statute only began to run when she was appointed permanent guardian. The trial court sided with the defendants and granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed.
The Fourth District reversed, holding that the statute of limitations only begins to run from the moment the person is appointed permanent guardian. Section 95.11(4)(b) of the Florida Statute provides that “[a]n action for medical malpractice shall be commenced within [two] years from the time the incident giving rise to the action occurred or within [two] years from the time the incident is discovered, or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence. . . .” The Supreme Court of Florida has held that this statute is triggered when the person has knowledge of the injury and “knowledge that there is a reasonable possibility that the injury was caused by medical malpractice.” Tanner v. Hartog, 618 So. 2d 177, 181 (Fla. 1993) (footnote omitted). In this case the Fourth District reasoned that an incapacitated person would not have knowledge of his or her injury and, more importantly, that a potential guardian’s knowledge of the possible malpractice can only be imputed to the incapacitated person at the moment the guardian has a legal duty to pursue the malpractice claim. The Fourth District concluded, given the differences in duties imposed by temporary and permanent guardianship, that the duty did not arise until the mother was appointed permanent guardian. Therefore, the trial court erred in holding that the statute of limitations began to run from the time the mother was appointed temporary guardian.
Although the plaintiff in this case will be able to pursue the claim, this case demonstrates the importance of understanding statutes of limitations and pursuing action in a timely manner. Indeed, the time between the mother’s appointment as temporary guardian and her appointment as permanent guardian was not considerable, yet even a single day difference can bar one from pursuing a possibly meritorious claim. Accordingly, if you believe you’ve been injured in a possible case of medical negligence, you should consider taking prompt legal action. The South Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have represented numerous injured patients and are prepared to help you with a possible case. If you are interested in learning more about your possible claim and our services, please feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.