Pa. Supreme Court Issues Decision Regarding Statute of Limitations in Survival Actions

Last Updated: Dec 21, 2017

In a Nov. 22, 2017, decision regarding the statute of limitations for survival actions, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations for medical professional liability cases in the form of wrongful death or survival actions is two years from the time of the decedent's death, and not two years from the decedent's injury.

Background of the Case
In Dubose v. Quinlan et al., the plaintiff, Robert Dubose, brought survival and wrongful-death claims against the medical providers of the deceased Elise Dubose.

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In July of 2005, Mrs. Dubose was admitted to Albert Einstein Medical Center after falling at home and sustaining severe head injuries. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Dubose was transferred to Willowcrest Nursing Home. Upon arriving at Willowcrest, Mrs. Dubose was diagnosed with several ailments including, but not limited to pressure ulcers (bedsores). While under Willowcrest's care from 2005-2007, Mrs. Dubose's existing sores went untreated and new ones proliferated on other parts of her body.

One of the sores that Mrs. Dubose developed during her initial July 2005 hospitalization became infected in July of 2007. After this infection caused sepsis in Mrs. Dubose, she was again admitted to Einstein in September of 2007. On Oct. 18, 2007, Mrs. Dubose died from sepsis and organ failure.

Mr. Dubose, as administrator of Mrs. Dubose's estate, subsequently initiated survival and wrongful-death actions against Willowcrest, Albert Einstein Health Network, Jefferson Health Network, and individual staff (the defendants) in August and September of 2009. These cases were consolidated into one case in October 2010.

Court Proceedings
The first jury trial ended in a mistrial. In early 2013, a second jury trial returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Dubose. The defendants filed post-trial motions with the trial court appealing the jury verdict. On appeal, the trial court concluded that the MCare Act permits plaintiffs to bring survival actions within two years of death; Mr. Dubose initiated his suit within two years of Mrs. Dubose's death, thus his claim was timely filed.

As alternative support, the trial court relied on the "discovery rule," which allows the commencement of the two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims to be put on hold if a plaintiff, despite reasonable diligence, could not discover their injury. The trial court concluded that Mrs. Dubose's comatose condition prevented her from reasonably discovering her injuries while alive.

The defendants subsequently appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. A three-judge panel of the Superior Court affirmed the trial court's decision by reasoning that Section 513(d) clearly provides that survival and wrongful death action must be brought within two years of a decedent's death.

Supreme Court Decision
Following the Superior Court's decision in favor of Mr. Dubose, the defendants appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard the case in March 2017 and, on Nov. 22, affirmed the Superior Court's decision.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether a survival action is a continuation of a personal injury cause of action that accrues to a decedent while they are alive, with the statute of limitations beginning to run when the decedent was injured and not upon their death.

Justice Mundy wrote for the majority and was joined by Justices Todd and Dougherty. Justice Baer authored a concurring and dissenting opinion, and Chief Justice Saylor filed a dissent. Justices Donohue and Wecht did not participate in the case's consideration or decision.

The Supreme Court held that Section 513(d) of MCare establishes a specific statute of limitations for medical liability cases resulting in death, which accrues at the time of a decedent's death. This statute of limitations, the Court opined, prevails over the statutory period to bring a personal injury claim.

To reach this conclusion, the Supreme Court examined the plain language of Section 513(d), which provides that wrongful-death and survival actions must be brought within two years of a decedent's death (absent affirmative misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment of the cause of death).

The Court concluded that Section 513(d) establishes a two-year period following the death of a decedent, where a survival action may be filed on the decedent's behalf. Furthermore, the Court also theorized that the plain language of Section 513(d) indicates legislative intent to enact a more specific statute of limitations for medical liability cases resulting in a patient's death.

In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Baer agreed with the majority's opinion that Mr. Dubose's action was timely filed because Mrs. Dubose could not have reasonably discovered her injuries while alive; however, he vehemently disagreed that Section 513(d) creates an extended statutory period to file medical liability suits. Chief Justice Saylor authored a dissenting opinion, in which he argued that Section 513(d) does not reflect a legislature intention to fundamentally alter the nature and accrual of survival causes of action.

PAMED will continue to monitor developments in medical liability and inform members of all updates.

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