On July 18, 2023, a federal judge in North Carolina granted a motion to dismiss a suit against Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune based on a state law four-year time bar on malpractice claims.
We have the facts from the court’s decision in this case.
On December 3, 2016, the plaintiff patient arrived at the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune Emergency Department with abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. After examination, she was diagnosed with a kidney stone and discharged. But her symptoms worsened, and she returned to the Naval Hospital the next day with a fever, shortness of breath, and disorientation.
The plaintiff was transferred to medical intensive care with concerns of septic shock. Upon her second discharge from the Naval Hospital, she was diagnosed with severe sepsis, shock, heart, lung, and kidney failure.
During treatment, the patient was prescribed vasopressors, which raise blood pressure by constricting blood vessels. The medications caused her to develop gangrene on her fingers and toes, resulting in the amputation of her hands and feet.
She sued the United States on October 21, 2022, for alleged negligence regarding her treatment at the Naval Hospital. This suit came after a four-year administrative process with the Department of the Navy that began in 2018.
North Carolina Time Bar.
The federal government argued in its motion to dismiss that the North Carolina statute of repose applied to the medical malpractice claim against the U.S., and that it barred the plaintiff from pursuing the matter in court.
A statute of repose establishes a maximum specified time period in which a suit must be brought for a cause of action to be recognized. As the name implies, a statute or repose kills the cause of action completely; it is an unyielding and absolute barrier that prevents a plaintiff’s right of action after the specified time. A statute of repose is different from a statute of limitations because statutes of limitations merely make a claim unenforceable after a specified time period.
The North Carolina statute of repose prohibits bringing an action for medical malpractice more than four years from the defendant’s last act that gives rise to the claim. The defendant’s last act in this case was December 4, 2016, and the plaintiff filed the suit October 21, 2022, exceeding the four-year time bar imposed by North Carolina law.
The Federal Torts Claims Act.
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) is a law passed by Congress to allow some types of lawsuits against the United States for negligent acts its employees commit when they are acting within the course and scope of their employment as federal employees. Otherwise, the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars such suits (no one is allowed to sue the king!). It can be found in 28 U.S. Code Chapter 171 (28 U.S.C. Sections 2671-2680). The FTCA applies the law of the state in which the tort occurs.
In response to the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the plaintiff argued that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) preempted the state’s statute of repose and gave her a cause of action. However, the FTCA is limited in that it only imposes tort liability on the United States in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under similar circumstances by the state’s law where the act occurred. In other words, the FTCA incorporates state law.
The plaintiff argued that the FTCA overrides North Carolina’s time bar because it imposes its own time limitations. The FTCA states that all tort claims against the United States are barred forever unless an administrative claim is presented in writing to the appropriate federal agency within two years of the claim’s arising. It also states that claims are barred unless the court action is filed within six months after the administrative claim is denied by the federal agency.
The plaintiff argued that the FTCA preempted the North Carolina statute of repose because the FTCA spells out how it preempts statutes of limitations. However, the two statutes are not the same.
The court agreed that the statute of repose applied to the tort claim, barring it.
In fact, all the federal circuit courts that have considered the issue have ruled consistently that the FTCA incorporates state statutes of repose and does not preempt them.
The judge conceded that the delay in the administrative process was unfortunate. However, the court ruled, it was still inappropriate to expand the FTCA’s provisions to override the state’s time bar. The court held that the North Carolina statute of repose applied to the medical malpractice suit against the federal government, which meant that the plaintiff could not bring a cause of action against the U.S. or the naval hospital.
The judge also stated that the FTCA only allows lawsuits against the United States if the state’s law permits a similar suit against a private person. Since the North Carolina statute of repose would not have allowed the lawsuit to be filed against a private doctor, it cannot be filed against the United States. Accordingly, the judge dismissed the case.
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Baldwin v. United States, No. 7:22-CV-180-FL. (E.D.N.C., July 18, 2023).
Bland, Travis. “NC Time Bar Ends Med Mal Suit Over Amputations.” Law360. (18 July 2023). https://www.law360.com/health/articles/1701132?nl_pk=0cbd4c0b-c6c8-416a-9e67-b4affa63b102&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=health&utm_content=2023-07-19&read_main=1&nlsidx=0&nlaidx=15
About the Authors: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Hartley Brooks is a law clerk with the health law firm. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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