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Seven Year Statute of Repose Ruled Unconstitutional

Article by Daniel J. Margonari, Esq.

On October 31, 2019, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Yanakos v. UPMC, 10 WAP 2018 (Pa. 2019), removed the seven-year deadline for filing medical malpractice actions in Pennsylvania.  Since its passage, the MCARE Act has placed a hard deadline on medical malpractice actions, requiring that they be brought within seven years of the allegedly negligent act.  The only exceptions to this rule, over nearly the past two decades, have been cases involving retained foreign objects and cases involving minors.  With this recent ruling, the court has now stripped this legislative time-restriction on medical malpractice cases.

The Yanakos case involved a liver transplant wherein the patient alleged that, twelve years after the surgery in question, she discovered that the condition the surgery was intended to fix was still present.  The defendants sought to have the claim time-barred due to the strict seven-year statute of repose outlined in the MCARE Act.  In examining this issue, instead of applying the statute, the Court ruled the statutory restriction unconstitutional under Article 1, Section 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  In essence, the Court held that the time-limitation unconstitutionally removed an individual’s access to legal remedies without sufficient justification being provided by the legislature.

Examined through a wider lens, this ruling marks a continued trend by Pennsylvania’s appellate courts in eroding the time limitations placed on medical malpractice actions in the state.  In addition to this case, Nicolaou v. Martin, 195 A.3d 880 (Pa. 2018) (examining the discovery rule), Dubose v. Quinlan, 173 A.3d 634 (Pa. 2017) (examining the two-year statute of repose in death case) and Bradley v. Thomas Jefferson Health Sys., No. 2915 EDA 2017 (Pa. Super. 2018) have all marked the court’s recent reluctance to apply the traditionally understood time-bars governing medical malpractice actions.  Unlike these prior cases, though, the Yanakos seemingly takes this trend a step further, holding a portion of the MCARE Act unconstitutional.

While the majority in Yanakos questioned whether the time-bar was constitutionally justified, from a practical standpoint, this recent case should certainly have an impact on the management of claims by healthcare institutions.  With this string of recent cases, the court has called into question the traditionally used time tables in evaluating potential claims.  While the financial impact remains to be seen, it would not be surprising to see medical malpractice insurance premiums begin to rise as a result of this judicial trend.