Many people are aware that that if they fail to bring an action for catastrophic injuries they suffer within a certain amount of time, they are likely to lose their right to recovery. However, people are often unsure of the more nuanced details and judicial interpretation of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitation. In short, the purpose of a statute of limitation is to encourage matters to be resolved in a contemporaneous manner. Resolving the matter in a reasonable amount of time helps ensure that witness memories do not fade, that evidence is not lost or destroyed, and provides certainty by encouraging a final decision on potential liability.
However despite knowing about the existence of statutes of limitations, all too often people procrastinate despite it beginning to run when the potential plaintiff knows or reasonably should know that a cause of action has accrued. It can be easy to rationalize waiting “just one more day” or saying “I’ll take care of it tomorrow”, but days can turn into weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. Before you know it, you are right up against the statutory time limit and evidence may have been lost or destroyed during the period you sat on your rights.
How Does Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations Apply to Personal Injury Lawsuits?
In Pennsylvania, an individual’s cause of action accrues when he or she could first have brought that action successfully. Kapil v. Association of Pa. State College and Univ. Faculties, 504 Pa. 92, 470 A.2d 482, 485 (1983). Therefore, the statute of limitations begins to run at that moment the cause of action accrues which, for personal injury matters, is often the time at which the injury occurred. Pocono International Raceway, Inc. v. Pocono Produce, Inc., 503 Pa. 80 (1983); Ayers v. Morgan, 397 Pa. 282 (1959). If an action has accrued and could be brought successfully, but it has not been brought within the statutorily defined time frame, the right to action is lost and the party is barred from bringing a claim. Pocono International, 468 A.2d at 471.
There are actually a number of statutes that define the limitation periods for different types of criminal and civil actions. The statute of limitations for Pennsylvania personal injury matters is codified in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524(2). This provision requires that no more than 2 years elapse before bringing, “an action to recover damages for injuries to the person or for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” Thus this provision imposes a 2-year time limit for personal injuries and wrongful death due to negligence, recklessness and intentional acts of violence such as assault. Other matters where personal injury can occur includes medical malpractice, injuries due to defective products, and injuries caused by a governmental unit or its agencies. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat.§ 5524(7) defines the statute of limitations also as 2 years for both medical malpractice and product liability actions. Injuries caused by a governmental body are a special case in Pennsylvania as per 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5522(1) an injured person must file a written notice of their intent to sue within 6 months of the injury.
While these are the general rules for statute of limitations in Pennsylvania personal injury matters, exceptions can apply. The statute of limitations can be tolled for a number of reasons. One common reasons for tolling a statute of limitations is due to the non-discovery of the injury due to fraudulent concealment. Courts have held that those who conceal the injuries that they cause or contribute to should be estopped from then invoking the statute of limitations. This estoppel is balanced by the requirement that potential plaintiffs exercise reasonable diligence in the discovery of injuries.
Fraudulent Concealment Can Toll the Statute of Limitations
The leading Pennsylvania fraudulent concealment case is Fine v. Checcio, 870 A.2d 850, 860 which arose through a malpractice suit for battery due to an alleged lack of informed consent and negligence. In this consolidated matter, one the plaintiffs had four wisdom teeth extracted. The defendant doctor claims that she explained the increased risk for numbness to the lip and paresthesia however the plaintiff disputed that he was informed of these risks. After extraction, the plaintiff complained about pain and numbness. The patient-plaintiff had a number of post-operative check-ups over roughly the next 10 months where doctor and patient discussed the patient’s continued loss of sensation. The doctor seemed to routinely tell the patient that either the loss of sensation was an expected after-affect of surgery or the condition could improve and was expected. At the patient’s seventh and final post-operative visit, the patient was referred to another oral surgeon for a consultation.
Thus the legal question in this matter is whether the care and assurances provided by the defendant doctor delayed the discovery of the injury through concealment of the injury.
The discovery rule developed in response to injuries where the potential plaintiff is not or could not be aware of the existence of an injury. Pennsylvania courts have held that the, “…purpose of the discovery rule has been to exclude from the running of the statute of limitations that period of time during which a party who has not suffered an immediately ascertainable injury is reasonably unaware he has been injured, so that he has essentially the same rights as those who have suffered such an injury. Hayward v. Medical Center of Beaver County, 530 Pa. 320, 608 A.2d 1040, 1043 (1992). However, reasonable diligence by the injured party is required.
The Pennsylvanian Supreme court held that, “ …the discovery rule applies to toll the statute of limitations in any case where a party neither knows nor reasonably should have known of his injury and its cause at the time his right to institute suit arises.” Fine v. Checcio, 870 A.2d 850, 860 (2005). Furthermore in regard to fraudulent concealment claims, “The doctrine does not require fraud in the strictest sense encompassing an intent to deceive, but rather, fraud in the broadest sense, which includes an unintentional deception.” Id. That is, the term is something of a misnomer in that the defendant does not have to intend to deceive or conceal the injury, but if their words or actions have the effect of defeating the person’s vigilance, a concealment has occurred. Whether a doctor’s assurances have caused a person to be lulled into a false sense of safety is a factual question for a jury. Id. at 862. The court concludes, “that a statute of limitations that is tolled by virtue of fraudulent concealment begins to run when the injured party knows or reasonably should know of his injury and its cause.” Id. at 860. The matter was remanded back to the Superior Court for factual determinations regarding the fraudulent concealment defense.
Don’t delay seeking legal guidance following a serious personal injury
Failure to file your personal injury action prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations can result in being on the hook for your own medical bills, rehabilitation expenses, property damage and more. However while expectations to the statute of frauds, like fraudulent concealment, may permit an action to be brought that would ordinarily be barred, it should never be relied upon. If you have suffered a catastrophic personal injury or a loved one has been wrongfully killed, do not delay in seeking legal guidance.