Statute of Limitations for Minors in Medical Malpractice Actions
August 29, 2022 by Scott Addison
Back in law school, we all learned about the statute of limitation: a plaintiff has a limited amount of time in which to file suit. There are, however, exceptions to this time limitation, especially when the plaintiff is under a “disability.”
If the plaintiff is unable to understand the need to file suit, the statute of limitations may be extended, or “tolled,” until a time the plaintiff may be expected to discern a claim should be filed. (Note: as with most things in law, there are exceptions to the exceptions, but we will do our best not to digress from the pertinent issue).
In most states, including North Carolina, the age of minority (under the age of 18) is considered a “disability.” Historically, in the context of medical malpractice cases, a minor plaintiff had at least until the age of 19 (one year following the completion of the age of minority) to file a lawsuit.
For example, an injured three-year-old was permitted to file a lawsuit against a physician 15 years after the care was rendered, and very little could prevent it. Obviously, in such extreme cases, memories are completely gone, providers may have retired or died, and standards of practice have drastically changed.
Medical Malpractice Tort Reform in North Carolina
We saw sweeping statutory reforms in medical malpractice litigation on October 1, 2011. One of the significant changes to occur as part of Medical Malpractice Tort Reform was to the statute of limitations exceptions set out in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17, “Disabilities.” Section 1-17 is the North Carolina statute that explains the “disabilities” allowing for tolling (extension of) of the statute of limitations.
Section 1-17(b), before 2011, had been applicable to minor plaintiffs’ claims of professional negligence, including medical negligence. For many years, claims were allowed to be brought until the age of 19. In 2011, however, a completely new section, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17(c) was added, which narrowed the focus from “professional services” to “a healthcare provider’s performance of or failure to perform professional services.”
Accordingly, while the prior provision applied to accountants, lawyers, engineers, and other “professionals,” the new section carved healthcare providers out from the “professionals” group. It gave a new framework when dealing with the statute of limitations applicable to minor plaintiffs in medical malpractice actions.
New Statute of Limitations Exceptions for Medical Malpractice Actions
The new section laid out three specific exceptions to the general statute of limitations for minor plaintiffs bringing a medical malpractice action:
If the statute of limitations expires before the child turned 10, the action could be brought up until the child turned 10. This exception is straightforward and acknowledged the issues arising from the extreme example mentioned above. So, if the child was three, rather than being allowed to file the claim 15 years later, they could file it 6 years later.
This change made sense, prevented stale claims, and still gave the child plenty of time to file suit. It was silent, however, on situations where the minor plaintiff’s claims expired between the ages of 10 and 19. Specifically, it states:
Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) and (b) of this section, an action on behalf of a minor for injuries alleged to have resulted from malpractice arising out of a health care provider’s performance of or failure to perform professional services shall be commenced within the limitations of time specified in G.S. 1-15(c), except as follows:
- If the time limitations specified in G.S. 1-15(c) expire before the minor attains the full age of 10 years, the action may be brought any time before the minor attains the full age of 10 years.
Applied to specific situations where a court has entered a judgment or consent order finding the minor was an abused or neglected juvenile. In that very special circumstance, the minor’s medical malpractice claim had to be brought within the later of 1) three years of the judgment or consent order or 2) before the child turned 10.
So, if a court entered an order finding a nine-year-old child was a neglected juvenile, the child has three years from the date of the order to file a medical malpractice claim.
The final exception applied to children who were in legal custody of the State, a county, or child placement agency. The new statute gave the child until the later of 1) one year after the child was no longer in legal custody, or 2) until the child turned 10.
Morris v. Rodeberg
It took more than a decade for the North Carolina appellate courts to receive a case where the new framework took center stage and required interpretation, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals issued an important opinion interpreting the new statute on August 16, 2022, in a case titled Morris v. Rodeberg.
The Court’s interpretation in the case may send some medical malpractice plaintiff attorneys scrambling to get their clients’ claims filed. As a practical note, because the issue pertains only to minors between the ages of 7 and 15 (where the statute of limitations would expire between the ages of 10 and 19, which is not a common age group in medical malpractice cases), the opinion will not have far-reaching consequences; but it is very important, nonetheless.
The minor plaintiff in Morris was a thirteen-year-old boy who presented to the emergency department on February 23, 2015, with complaints of right-sided abdominal pain. He underwent a laparoscopic appendectomy the following day, but he later developed an infection and had to undergo two additional surgeries. He remained in the hospital until March 20, 2015.
More than five years after the surgery, when he was now 18 years old, the patient filed suit against the surgeon and the hospital, alleging medical negligence in the care and treatment of the appendicitis. The defendants filed motions to dismiss on the grounds the plaintiff had only three years to file suit from the date of surgery in response to the new framework laid out in N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-17(c)(1).
The plaintiff argued the new framework applied only to situations where the minor plaintiff was younger than 10 and, otherwise, the general provision of N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-17(b) applied, giving him until the age of 19 to file suit. The trial court agreed with the plaintiff’s interpretation and denied the defendants’ motion.
The defendants appealed and were joined in the appeal by the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys (“NCADA”) through an amicus curiae brief. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed to hear the issue (there were several legal technicalities involved with the Court of Appeals’ ability to hear the appeal that are not covered here). The basic issue to be decided was whether the new N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-17(c)(1) applied to 1) all medical malpractice claims or 2) only medical malpractice claims where the statute of limitations would expire before the age of 10.
Under the defendants’ interpretation, the only exception to the general statute of limitations applicable to minors bringing a medical malpractice action arises if the statute of limitations would expire before age 10. Minors between the ages of 7 and 15 when the negligence occurred would have only three years to bring an action when, historically, they would have been allowed more than three years to file suit.
The plaintiffs’ argued the statute should be interpreted to provide the same treatment to minors between the ages of 7 and 15 as those between the ages of 0 and 6, allowing them to toll the statute of limitations for some period of time.
Under this interpretation, the new statute simply breaks the traditional period of ages 0-19 into two groups—0-10 and 10-19.
A “Narrowed” Statute
After dissecting the organization of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-17 into its various parts under subsections (a), (b), and (c), the Morris court agreed with the defendants’ (and the NCADA’s) interpretation. Specifically, the court explained how the newly enacted provision “narrowed” the statute’s application. When a statute or a new provision in a statute is enacted that carves out a more specific or narrower application of another, more general statute or provision, the narrower, or more specific, statute or provision prevails over the general.
Additionally, if a new section is brought into a particular statute at a later time, and the new provision is more specific than the older provisions, the courts consider the later addition to demonstrate an intent of the General Assembly for the new section to prevail over the prior, more general sections.
The North Carolina statute pertaining to “Disabilities,” Section 1-17(a) is the overarching general tolling provision applicable to all “disabilities” and all claims, making it the most general subsection. Section 1-17(b) narrowed the scope of the tolling exception for claims when a plaintiff is under a “disability” and applied only to “professional malpractice actions.” Thus, subsection 1-17(b) was a narrower, more specific application and would prevail over the general provisions of 1-17(a).
The newly enacted N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-17(c) specifically and expressly applied only to medical malpractice actions. It provided that the statute of limitations in medical malpractice actions should follow the standard statute of limitations set out in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-15(c), and the statute of limitations for minor plaintiffs should be tolled only until the age of 10.
Accordingly, N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-17(c) was narrower and more specific than either subsection (a) or (b) in that it applied only the medical malpractice actions, and, under the rules of statutory construction, it prevailed.
The result under the Morris Court’s interpretation
Considering the Morris case was a medical malpractice case, only 1-17(c) applied, and the statute of limitations was tolled for the minor plaintiff only until the age of 10. Because the statute of limitations was set to expire after the child turns 10, it was not tolled based on the age of minority. The child was 13 at the time the negligence occurred, giving him three years in which to file suit. He did not do so, and so his claim was time-barred.
The Morris opinion brings some relief to healthcare providers and the attorneys who represent them, as they do not have to be concerned with facing a lawsuit from an 18-year-old who was allegedly injured ten years earlier. On the other hand, attorneys representing injured pediatric patients no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to a certain group of clients.