Time limit of 4 years for med-mal suits upheld

Should a patient be allowed to sue a physician for malpractice that occurred many years or even decades earlier? No, according to a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of a state law that prevents medical liability cases from being filed more than four years after the date of an alleged incident.1

The ruling provides a reasonable amount of time for a person injured by negligence to determine they were injured and bring legal action, while at the same time holding the physician or other medical provider legally responsible for a reasonable time, according to Rick Sites, Esq., legal counsel for the Ohio Hospital Association.

Thirty-two states and one territory have enacted medical malpractice statutes of repose, and at least 16 states have upheld those statutes against constitutional challenges, adds Sites. (A list of states upholding statutes of repose can be viewed on p. 14 of a legal brief at http://bit.ly/Wle7Pf.) "Only one state, Kentucky, found its statute of repose unconstitutional, and that was a 1990 ruling that might be decided differently today," he says.

Generally speaking, a statute of limitation is the time a person has to file a lawsuit following an injury of which the injured person is aware, whereas a statute of repose addresses situations where a person is not aware of the injury, such as an object left in the person during surgery, and gives a period of time for the person to discover the injury and then file a lawsuit, explains Sites.

Without statutes of limitation and repose, past events would forever adversely affect important medical business operations such as medical record keeping, liability insurance purchases, purchase and financing of new technology, expansion, and mergers and acquisitions, says Sites. "Additionally, the medical provider would forever be haunted by the fear that someone in the distant past could suddenly file a legal action and do so when memories of the event were impaired, medical records destroyed, and witnesses unavailable due to relocation or death," he says.

The decision means a medical provider has more certainty that events in the past will not adversely affect future medical business operations, according to Sites. "Opportunities to benefit society would be frozen, or at least impeded, by fear of events — forgotten or unknown — lurking in the past," he says.


  1. Ruther v. Kaiser, 2011-Ohio-1723.