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Court of Appeals Clarifies Timing for Statute of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Decision

photo_5495_20080405Almost every type of legal claim is governed by an applicable statute of limitation that limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to bring legal action to redress his or her grievance. Among the shortest statutes of limitation is the one that limits the time a plaintiff has to bring a medical malpractice action. Under Georgia law, a plaintiff has only two years to bring his or her claim. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-71 (a). However, a key question that often arises in such cases is when the statute of limitation begins to run. This determination was the central issue in the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Beamon v. Mahadevan.

The events leading to Beamon began in October 2007 when the plaintiff, complaining of what he thought was severe indigestion, went to a physician who after reviewing the results of an electrocardiogram immediately sent the plaintiff to the hospital. Doctors at the hospital determined the plaintiff needed cardiac bypass surgery and a mitral valve replacement. Six days later, the defendant in this case performed a four-vessel coronary artery bypass on the plaintiff. The plaintiff alleges that during this surgery, the defendant replaced the plaintiff’s poorly performing mitral valve with a bio-prosthetic one that was inappropriately sized. The plaintiff further alleged that the valve was negligently sutured to leaflet tissue as opposed to the proper tissue for suture, the annulus of the heart. Only a few months after the surgery, the plaintiff began to experience breathing trouble, fatigue, and exhaustion. The plaintiff’s condition continued to worsen, and by June 2008 the plaintiff was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and a heart murmur. In March 2009, the plaintiff underwent a transesophageal echocardiogram that showed a significant heart valve leak. The following week, the plaintiff underwent a second surgery to replace the existing mitral valve replacement with a larger one. The surgeon who performed the second surgery observed the alleged errors in the suture job of the first surgery. The plaintiff originally brought suit against the first surgeon in December 2010 but voluntarily dismissed the suit. However, the plaintiff then filed a renewal action in October 2011, seeking damages for medical negligence. Following some discovery, the defendant moved for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds, and the trial court granted the motion.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by ruling that the date of the first surgery in 2007 was the date on which the statute of limitations began to run. The plaintiff contended that the statute of limitations actually began to run on March 24, 2009 when the inappropriately sized and placed valve failed and resulted in a second surgery. The Court of Appeals, however, sided with the trial court and found the plaintiff’s arguments about the timing of the statute of limitations to be unavailing. O.C.G.A. § 9-3-71 (a) provides, “an action for medical malpractice shall be brought within two years after the date on which an injury or death arising from a negligent or wrongful act or omission occurred.” The Court of Appeals held that the time generally runs from the moment the injury occurs. Since the plaintiff contends that the surgeon acted negligently during the course of the first surgery, it follows that the statute of limitation began to run at that time. Furthermore, the court noted that the plaintiff had begun to experience symptoms associated with the alleged negligence from March to June of 2008. Thus, the plaintiff could not maintain that he had absolutely no knowledge of possible negligence, which could perhaps justify tolling of the limitation period. See Witherspoon v. Aranas, 254 Ga. App. 609, 614 (2) (b) (2002) (“In most medical malpractice actions, the injury ‘occurs’ when its symptoms manifest themselves to the patient […] this rule applies even if the patient is not aware of either the cause of the pain or of the connection between the symptoms and the [negligence].”); see also Baskette v. Atlanta Center for Reproductive Medicine, 285 Ga. App. 876, 878 (1) (2007) (“The statute of limitation commences … upon injury caused by an act or omission in deviation from the standard of care … and not from discovery of the injury.”).Thus, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s December 2010 complaint fell outside the two-year statute of limitations period and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the action.

Given the short period of time that those injured in a possible act of medical negligence have to bring a claim, and the difficulty of determining whether medical negligence has actually occurred, one who believes he or she may have a possible claim should seek legal advice quickly. The Atlanta medical negligence attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have litigated many medical malpractice cases in both state and federal court and are ready to assist you with both the investigation and litigation of your possible claim. If you’re considering taking action, feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation to discuss the options you may have.

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