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Court of Appeals concluded that time-barred medical malpractice claim could be revived based on equitable estoppel.  Pahlad v. Brustman, MD,  4. N.Y.3d 627 (2005)


In New York, a medical malpractice case must be filed within 2.5 years of when the underlying act of negligence occurred. CPLR 214-a. However, in extraordinary circumstances, the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be invoked to revive time-barred claims.

In Pahlad, the Appellate Division considered whether a time-barred medical malpractice claim should be allowed where the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant’s actions contributed to their filing their claim late.

The infant plaintiff was born on September 25, 2000 with Cornelia de Lange syndrome. Cornelia de Lange syndrome is a genetic disorder characterized by numerous physical, intellectual, and behavioral differences.  A common characteristic of Cornelia de Lange syndrome include upper limb differences ranging from small hands to missing fingers or forearms. In the infant plaintiff’s case, it was manifested by the absence of upper extremities and other deformities.  Records indicate that on June 1, 2000 a sonogram indicated that the development of all four limbs was “normal.”

On November 5, 2003, the plaintiffs filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Jenna Lynn Pahlad , arguing that the defendant was negligent in interpreting and reporting the results of ultrasound imaging of the fetus in utero on June 1, 2000.

Statute of limitations and equitable estoppel
There is no question that the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit several months after the 2.5 year statute of limitations had expired.  However, the plaintiffs argue that under the facts of this case, the limitations period should be tolled under the doctrine of equitable estoppel.

Equitable estoppel is considered to be an “extraordinary remedy” that a plaintiff can invoke to stop a defendant from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense. The basis of equitable estoppel is that the defendant’s fraud, misrepresentations or deception induces the plaintiff to refrain from filing a timely action.  In addition, the plaintiff must show that they reasonably relied on the defendant’s misrepresentations and that they used due diligence to ascertain facts.

Here, the record shows that on June 1, 2001, about nine months after the birth of their baby, the plaintiffs made their first request for records from the defendant.  The defendant sent them a copy of the report from the June 1, 2000 sonogram that indicated that all four limbs were developing normally.  The plaintiffs made a second request for medical records in August 2001. In October 2001, the hospital sent the same obstetrical sonogram report that they had received in June which again indicated the presence of four normal limbs. The actual sonogram films were not sent to either in June 2001 or in October 2001.

The plaintiffs argue that the films were critical to their case.  However, the plaintiffs did not make any further effort to obtain the films until March 11, 2003, just two weeks prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

In reviewing the sequence of events, the court concluded that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate urgency, persistence, or diligence in pursuing the records.  As a result, it would not be appropriate to apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel to revive the plaintiff’s time-barred claim.

Note that in New York, the statute of limitations for minor children in medical malpractice cases does not begin running until the child’s 18th birthday, but cannot be extended more than ten years after the malpractice occurred. This may mean that in this case, although the parent’s claim was time-barred, the child may have until his 10th birthday to file a claim.  However, the claims of the child would be different from those of the parents.  If there is a concern about a medical malpractice case related to a birth injury being time-barred, contact an attorney to discuss options.

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