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Does Discovery Rule Toll Statute of Limitations in Pennsylvania Medical Malpractice Suit? It’s up to the Jury.

October 31, 2018

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In <a href="https://cases.justia.com/pennsylvania/supreme-court/2018-44-map-2017.pdf?ts=1539785356"><em>Nicolaou v. Martin</em></a>, plaintiff was bitten by a tick in 2001 and, as a result, sought medical treatment from three different physicians between 2001 and 2008.  All three physicians ordered tests for Lyme disease, but all of the Lyme disease tests came back negative.  After an MRI, Nicolaou’s physicians diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis (“MS”) and prescribed treatment.  As a part of the treatment, Nicolaou saw a nurse practitioner, who, between July 20, 2009 and February 1, 2010, told Nicolaou that she thought she had Lyme disease.  The nurse practitioner had Nicolaou undergo another Lyme disease test, this time from a company called IGeneX, which came back positive on February 12, 2010.

On February 10, 2012, Nicolaou sued the three physicians she had consulted with between 2001 and 2008 for medical malpractice.  The physicians filed motions for summary judgment, asserting that the two-year statute of limitations already expired.  Nicolaou replied that the discovery rule tolled the statute and that she had no reason to know of her Lyme disease until she received the IGenex results on February 12, 2010.  The trial court granted the physicians’ motion.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court in a 5-3 decision.  The majority held that reasonable minds would not differ that Nicolaou should have known of her disease and its cause as early as June of 2009, three years before she filed suit.  The three-judge dissent stated that there was a question of fact as to whether Nicolaou acted diligently to determine the cause of her injuries and that it should be submitted to a jury.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and adopted the dissent’s reasoning, holding that it was an error of law for the Superior Court to hold as a matter of law that the statute of limitations had not been tolled by the discovery rule in this particular case.  Whether or not Nicolaou should have known or had reason to know that she had Lyme disease and what caused it in 2009 was an issue of fact.  Therefore, it was the province of a jury to determine whether or not the discovery rule applied.

Thanks to Robert Turchick for his contribution to this post.

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