Medical Malpractice Law (Washington Health Care Provider Civil Liability Law) – Part 4: Statute of Limitations

(Medical Malpractice – Part 4 in a Several Part Series)

(This is the fourth part in a multiple part series pertaining to Medical Malpractice Law in Washington State. To read part one click here. To read part two click here. To read part three click here.)

The Limitations Periods – (AKA Statutes of Limitations)

“The statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims consists of two limitations periods: a three-year period and a one-year discovery period.” Unruh v. Cacchiotti, 172 Wn.2d 98, 107, 257 P.3d 631 (2011). The limitation periods are set out in RCW 4.16.350.

The statute gives a patient or her representative three years “of” the act or omission alleged to have caused the injury, or one year “of” the time the patient or his or her representative discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by “said act or omission,” whichever period is longer. RCW 4.16.350(3). In Gunnier v. Yakima Heart Ctr., Inc., 134 Wn.2d 854, 953 P.2d 1162 (1998), the Court held that the three year limitations period begins to run from the alleged wrongful act or omission causing injury, not from the date that the plaintiff experienced harm. Id., 859-860.

Prior to the enactment of RCW 4.16.350 in 1971, there was no statute of limitations unique to medical negligence claims. Fast vs. Kennewick Public Hospital District, 187 Wn.2d 27, 34, 384 P.3d 232 (2016). In Ruth v. Dight, 75 Wn.2d 660, 453 P.2d 631 (1969), the Court applied a three year discovery rule to medical negligence cases based on the catch-all tort limitations period. See RCW 4.16.010 and RCW 4.16.080(2). RCW 4.16.350 shortened the discovery rule limitations period to one year.

In Ohler v. Tacoma General Hosp., 92 Wn.2d 507, 598 P.2d 1358 (1979), the Court held that while the correct formulation of the discovery rule is a question of law, the application of the rule is a fact issue and a cause of action for medical malpractice based on discovery does not accrue until the patient or the patient’s representative discovered or reasonably should have discovered all essential elements of the cause of action; duty, breach, causation, and damages. Id., 509-511.

The discovery rule imposes on a plaintiff the obligation of using due diligence to discover the basis for the cause of action with the “key consideration” being the factual, not the legal basis for the claim. Adcox v. Children’s Orthopedic Hospital and Medical Center 123 Wn.2d 15, 35, 864 P.2d 921 (1993). “[T]he discovery rule merely tolls the running of the statute of limitations until the plaintiff has knowledge of the ‘facts’ which give rise to the cause of action; it does not require knowledge of the existence of a legal cause of action itself.” Cox v. Oasis Physical Therapy 153 Wn. App. 176, 189-190, 222 P.3d 119 (2009) (citing, Richardson v. Denend, 59 Wn. App. 92, 95-96, 795 P.2d 1192 (1990).)  

For purposes of the discovery rule, in circumstances where there have been multiple health care providers, a patient’s knowledge that is sufficient to trigger the statute against one provider does not necessarily trigger the statute as to all providers. Winburn v. Moore, 143 Wn.2d 206, 18 P.3d 576 (2001).

With respect to wrongful death medical malpractice claims, in Fast vs. Kennewick Public Hospital District, 187 Wn.2d 27, infra, the Court held that the medical negligence statute of limitations, not the general tort “catchall statute of limitations,” applied. Therefore, the applicable limitation period could be tolled for one year by serving a good faith request for mediation pursuant to RCW 7.70.110. Id.

In the next post, we will address some of the aspects regarding tolling of the limitations period.

 (This article was written by Mark Johnson and Michael Sprangers. Mark and Michael’s practice focuses on medical malpractice, legal malpractice, and serious personal injury lawsuits. Their law firm Johnson Flora Sprangers PLLC is located in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, Washington.)  

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