A California Court of Appeals has reversed the ruling of a trial court judge who held that a man could not sue over a stent left in his body because the three-year statute of limitations has run.
Part of California’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975 includes limits to the time that lawsuits can be brought. The purpose of the Act was to address increasing costs of medical malpractice insurance by placing limits on lawsuits.
Section 340.5 of the law limits initiation of claims to three years, regardless of the date of discovering an injury, and provides only three exceptions to the tolling period: cases involving fraud, intentional concealment, or the presence of nontherapeutic objects.
In 1996, Brendan Maher was injured by a gunshot and he underwent surgery. During the surgery, a biliary stent was placed in his bile duct as part of the procedure. Maher was unconscious during the surgery, and was not told about the stent after the procedure. He received rehabilitative care for the wound on an outpatient basis until 1997, but still was unaware of the stent.
In 2010, Maher began suffering from abdominal pain and vomiting and he went to the emergency room. Blood test results of Maher’s liver enzymes indicated an obstruction, and body imaging revealed the stent. Doctors at the hospital informed Maher that the stent was designed for temporary use and should have been removed three to six months after it was implanted, and that it has no efficacy after a year.
In 2011, Maher filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against his former surgeons alleging that they were negligent in not notifying him about the stent, and not removing it. However, the trial court judge dismissed his case on the basis that it was far past the statue of limitations. The judge ruled the exception for nontherapeutic objects did not apply to Maher, because the stent had been left in place for a therapeutic purpose.
Maher appealed to the Court of Appeals. In the Court’s opinion, Presiding Justice Sandra Margulies ruled that even if an object is implanted in the body for a therapeutic purpose, if it is allowed to stay in the patient beyond the time of its intended purpose, it becomes nontherapeutic.
Margulies held that Maher could sue based on the fact that even though the stent had a therapeutic purpose when it was implanted, the surgeons knew that the purpose was limited and temporary, and the stent would have to be removed once it had served its purpose. The Court reasoned that this differentiated the case from other cases where objects or substances were placed in a patient’s body for therapeutic purposes and were intended to remain there permanently.