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Incidents That Will Start or Stop the Clock on Your Malpractice Lawsuit

Date of the Occurrence

This is the date the malpractice actually occurred. You were the victim of medical malpractice during surgery or in the emergency department of a hospital. There is no difficulty in determining the Date of the Occurrence. On the other hand, if your mother went to a doctor complaining of a lump in her breast, and he saw her several times over a period of a year but failed to do a diagnostic work-up that would have revealed cancer, the date of the occurrence could be difficult to determine. Or, if you had a series of spinal manipulations for a bad back, you cannot be sure which one caused your fractured vertebrae.

Date of Discovery

Often, it is difficult to determine precisely when malpractice and injury occurred. In some cases, it is not even discovered until after the time limit, counting from the date of the occurrence, has run out. Therefore, most states use another measure called the Date of Discovery. This is the date on which a reasonable person should have discovered that he or she was the victim of malpractice.

In most medical malpractice or dental malpractice cases, the victims do not realize they have been the victims of malpractice for a long time. They tend to think their complaints are normal and usual complications of their disease or treatment. In fact, it is estimated that almost 90% of malpractice victims do not file suit, because they never realize their injuries are due to someone’s negligence.

A Georgia man suffered a serious back injury while working on a construction site. The emergency room doctors were surprised to see a surgical clamp on the x-rays. When the doctors questioned the patient, he told them he had had stomach surgery in Delaware 20 years earlier. He also told them he had suffered from chronic stomach trouble ever since, but it had not been bad enough for him to consult a doctor. He discovered the malpractice, and the clock started running when the doctor in Georgia told him about the instrument left in his abdomen. He sued and won.

Let us assume the man in Georgia had had so much discomfort from the clamp in his abdomen, that he had gone to another doctor a year later, and that doctor said, “I don’t know why you are still having stomach trouble. Let’s take an x-ray.” But, the patient had ignored the doctor’s advice and did not do anything until later. The court would have said that he should reasonably have discovered it sooner when it would have shown up on an x-ray and failure to do so was his own fault. His complaint would be thrown out, because it was way over the time limit.

At the other extreme, a Pennsylvania woman tried to sue a plastic surgeon for medical malpractice one week after the statute of  limitations had run, because she decided that she did not like the rhinoplasty he had done. The court ruled there was no valid excuse for not having moved sooner. She had been looking at her nose every day since her surgery and had ample opportunity to make up her mind. Her case was barred.

The legal term for this is Laches, and it means that if you sit on your legal rights for a long time and do not move to enforce them, you lose them. Once you have reason to suspect medical malpractice or dental malpractice, you must move, if only to find out whether your suspicions are correct.

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