Statutes of Limitations

July 26, 2018 | Aging Services Risk, Quality, & Safety Guidance

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A statute of limitations is a law that limits the period of time—the number of days, months, or years—in which a civil or criminal action or other legal remedy to redress a certain wrongdoing may be initiated. After the statutory period has passed, a prospective plaintiff is forever barred from taking legal action to redress the wrongdoing, a consequence that could leave an injured individual or entity without legal recourse.

However, to avoid a harsh, unjust result, the law typically provides that certain circumstances or events can prevent the statute of limitations from initiating, also known as running. A resident who remains in a coma for six months after surgery, for example, may be considered as having suffered a legal disability during that period, and thus, an exception to the statute of limitations will permit a lawsuit for medical negligence relating to the surgery to be brought within six months after the statute of limitations for initiating a medical malpractice action has expired.

This guidance article will help risk managers understand the general legal concepts underlying statutes of limitations and the reasons courts may permit lawsuits to proceed after the expiration of what appears to be a clear statutory deadline for filing suit. This article also provides case examples that are relevant to the actions most likely to be encountered by healthcare risk managers. Some of the cases discussed provide risk management lessons because they illustrate that certain actions by providers will have the legal effect of extending a statute of limitations to the benefit of a potential plaintiff.

Every state has enacted statutes providing deadlines for initiating different types of legal actions, including claims for wrongful death, survival (for injuries incurred during the life of a decedent), medical negligence, workers' compensation, personal injury, debt collection, contracts, products liability, fraud, libel, and slander. In addition, federal statutes of limitations establish time limits for filing lawsuits—for example, the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act is two years after the date of the violation for which the action is brought (42 USC § 1395dddC).

Claims may involve more than one statute of limitations, such as when a complaint raises several causes of action, as might occur when a visitor to the hospital falls on hospital property and is treated in the emergency department. The visitor may subsequently initiate a claim for premises liability with regard to the initial injury caused by the fall...

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