What is a statute of limitation?

The term “statute of limitations” means that there is a specific time frame in Pennsylvania in which an individual is permitted to initiate legal action against another person or entity. It is important to file suit within the designated time period because once the statute of limitations expires, it is nearly impossible to initiate legal action, no matter how much merit your lawsuit may have. Once the statute of limitations expires, so does your legal right to sue. If the statute of limitations expires and you have not yet filed a lawsuit, you will lose your right to money damages and other relief. The reason that each state has a statute of limitations governing medical malpractice actions is to encourage injured parties to evaluate their claims and take action or file a lawsuit within a certain period of time. The sooner a lawsuit is initiated after the perceived wrongdoing, the more likely it is that memories and documents pertinent to that lawsuit remain intact and are not destroyed by the passage of time.

The statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for injuries resulting from medical error or medical malpractice is two years. The easiest way to think of the statute of limitations is like a big clock counting down the years and days in which you have to file a lawsuit. Generally, the two-year statute of limitations “clock” begins to count down from the exact date the injury occurred. For example, the statute of limitations would begin to run on the day you underwent surgery or the day you attended an appointment with a physician in which a medical error occurred. Unfortunately, the day of a patient’s death may also mark the beginning of the count down on the statute of limitations clock. In most cases, it is fairly easy to determine the exact date of injury, and the patient has two years from that date to file a lawsuit, if that is the course of action they choose. 

In other situations, however, the date of injury may not always be so obvious. For those difficult instances where a patient discovers a medical error after the usual two-year time period has passed, that person may still be able to file a medical negligence lawsuit thanks to a legal rule called the “discovery rule.” The discovery rule says that in certain instances, the statute of limitations clock does not begin to run until the patient actually “discovers” or “should have known” that wrongdoing has occurred. The discovery rule most often takes effect in cases where there is a delayed diagnosis of some type of ailment, like cancer. Most individuals who believe they have been harmed by the negligence of a nurse, physician or other medical practitioner do not possess the necessary legal knowledge needed to know when they should file a lawsuit. That is the job of a qualified attorney. The most important thing you as a concerned patient can do is contact an attorney or attorney referral service at the first moment you think you have been harmed by a doctor or hospital. Time is certainly of the essence when it comes to protecting your legal right to sue another person or entity, and it is important to be aware of this two-year deadline.

For more information on the statutes of limitations in effect in Pennsylvania, please consult:

42 Pa C.S. §5524 (statute)