Pa. Supreme Court to Hear Organ Transplant Case with Statute of Repose Implications

gavel_stethoscopeThe Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has agreed to hear a medical liability case, stemming from a 2003 organ transplant, that questions the constitutionality of the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act’s (MCARE) Statute of Repose.

MCARE’s Statute of Repose, 40 P.S § 1303.513, provides that no cause of action asserting a medical professional liability claim may be commenced seven years after the date of alleged malfeasance. However, the statute makes exceptions for minors and in cases where the injury was caused by a foreign object unintentionally left in the individual’s body. Under these exceptions, a plaintiff may bring a case outside of the seven-year limitation.  

Background on the Case

The case of Yanakos v. UPMC involves a son, Christopher Yanakos, who donated part of his liver to his mother, Susan Yanakos. The procedure took place in September of 2003. Before this procedure, Christopher Yanakos underwent presurgical testing to determine whether he was a suitable donor. Christopher Yanakos alleges that this testing showed he had that the same liver disease as his mother, which should have disqualified him as a suitable donor. Christopher and Susan Yanakos claim they were unaware of these test results until June of 2014.

In December of 2015, Christopher and Susan Yanakos filed a medical liability suit against their physicians from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).  

UPMC sought summary judgment of the case because the suit was filed years after the 7-year limitation of the MCARE Statute of Repose had expired. The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas agreed with UPMC and granted summary judgment.

The Yanakoses subsequently appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Amongst other claims, the Yanakoses argued that MCARE’s Statute of Repose violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of “open courts” as it arbitrarily and capriciously deprives some patients of any access to courts but permits actions by similarly situated patients. Article I, Section 11 of the Pa. Constitution provides that all courts shall be open and individuals “shall have remedy by due course of law, and right and justice administered without sale, denial or delay.”

MCARE’s Statute of Repose allows patients with injuries due to the unintentional inclusion of a foreign object to bring a court action over seven years from the implantation of the foreign object. However, a patient with an injury due to a possibly negligent organ transplant is denied access to the courts if they attempt to bring a suit over seven years after the transplant. The Yanakoses argue that, similar to a plaintiff in a foreign object suit, they could not have learned of their physicians’ negligence within seven years after their liver transplant and thus they too should be afforded the same opportunity to file a suit outside of MCARE’s seven-year window.

The Superior Court rejected the Yanakoses’ argument. Writing for the majority, Judge Lillian Ransom reasons that the same observation on the durability of evidence cannot be made between foreign object suits and other delayed discovery cases. Whereas in a foreign object case, Judge Ransom notes, the evidence of negligence is nestled within the victim until natural discovery; however, in other delayed discovery cases, the passage of time erodes the credibility of eye-witness testimony and the availability of documentation.

Furthermore, Judge Ransom also notes that the legislature’s purpose in enacting the Statute of Repose was to ensure the legitimate government interests of prompt discovery of medical injuries and keeping medical professional liability insurance obtainable through affordable and reasonable costs.

MCARE’s Statute of Repose, the Superior Court concludes, does not violate the open courts guarantee of the Pa. Constitution. To support this conclusion, the Superior Court cites Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent holding that the Open Courts guarantees of the Pa. Constitution does not prohibit the Legislature from enacting statutes of reposes and abolishing common law rights of action without enacting a substitute means of redress.

What Issue Will the Supreme Court Decide?

Following the Superior Court’s decision, the Yanakoses appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. On March 28, 2018, the Supreme Court granted the Yanakoses’ appeal and agreed to hear the case. However, the Supreme Court will consider the appeal only in regard to one issue:

Whether the MCARE Statute of Repose violates the Open Courts guarantees of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, §11, where it arbitrarily and capriciously deprives some patients of any access to courts, but permits actions by similarly situated patients?

The Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) will continue to monitor this case and share all updates with members. PAMED's Legal Resource Center provides quality, timely legal advocacy and resources for member physicians who practice in Pennsylvania, please visit www.pamedsoc.org/LegalResourceCenter for more details.

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