Healthcare Group Obtains Summary Judgment in Malignant Melanoma Case, Overcoming Plaintiffs’ Use of Discovery Rule and Fraudulent Concealment Doctrine
In Fidler v. Geisinger Medical Center, et al., No. 4:15-CV-01602 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 5, 2017) (J. Matthew Brann) the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of our healthcare clients, ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims are time-barred as a matter of law despite the invocation of the discovery rule and the fraudulent concealment doctrine.
In this professional liability action, we contended that the plaintiffs’ malpractice claims were time-barred because the patient knew of his injury and its cause long before he filed suit. Specifically, the limitations period started to accrue in June 2013 when the patient learned of his injury (biopsy-proven melanoma) and its cause (an alleged failure to diagnose and treat the cancer). Plaintiffs, nevertheless, filed their complaint in August 2015, which was fifty-four days after the two-year statute of limitations period had expired.
Although the patient learned of his terminal diagnosis in June 2013, he argued that the limitations period did not start to accrue until July 2015 which is when he learned that he had a viable theory against Geisinger. He added that Geisinger had “concealed” the very information that he needed to timely file suit against it. Specifically, the patient claimed that Geisinger had received his pathology reports in 2011 that confirmed the malignancy yet it failed to convey the results. Because Geisinger had concealed this “smoking gun” evidence tying its conduct (failure to diagnose) to the injury, the plaintiffs argued that the limitations period did not start until the concealment was unearthed in July 2015. Finally, the plaintiffs argued that this was not the “extraordinary” case that enabled the Court rather than a jury to decide these issues as a matter of law, pointing to the numerous factual issues revealed during the protracted discovery process.
In response, we argued that the plaintiffs own actions belied their concealment argument because they actually filed a complaint before they unearthed the “concealed” evidence. Specifically, in their initial complaint, the plaintiffs averred that Geisinger was negligent for failing to obtain the pathology reports. Once the plaintiffs subsequently learned that Geisinger had, in fact, received the reports, they filed an amended Complaint. With the newly revealed evidence, the plaintiffs contended that Geisinger was negligent for failing to act on these reports. Put simply, the plaintiffs wanted to have it both ways. On the one hand, they claimed that Geisinger “concealed” vital records that prevented them from timely filing suit. On the other hand, they filed the lawsuit without the supposedly vital records.
After extensive briefing and oral argument, the Court found in favor of our client, underscoring that Pennsylvania’s approach to the discovery rule represents a “narrower” view of the doctrine than most jurisdictions, placing a greater burden on plaintiffs to save an otherwise time-barred claim. The court, citing Gleason v. Borough of Moosic, 15 A.3d 479 (Pa. 2011), noted that that a cause of action does not start to accrue once a person learns of “actual negligence or precise cause” of an injury. Rather, the running of the limitations period starts once a plaintiff obtains actual/constructive notice of a causal connection between his injury and another’s conduct, i.e., it is the “suspicion” of a cause of action that triggers the accrual.
Accordingly, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they were precluded from filing suit until they appreciated a precise “legal injury” against Geisinger. The delayed production of the pathology reports was an “insufficient” basis to further extend the limitations period because it did not preclude the plaintiffs from appreciating a causal connection between the injury and Geisinger’s conduct. Likewise, the plaintiffs’ fraudulent concealment argument was unavailing because the doctrine employs the same standard as the discovery rule. Further, the plaintiffs could not meet their burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Geisinger’s actions estopped them from timely filing the lawsuit. While the court recognized the patient’s “unfortunate” situation, it concluded that the facts told “a legally timed-barred tale.”
Anna M. Bryan, Kim Kocher and Russell P. Lieberman represented the Geisinger Medical Center.
Plaintiffs were represented by multiple law firms across three states, including a prominent lawyer from Beverly Hills, California.