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South Carolina Supreme Court Clarifies Malpractice Deadlines

lawyer standing before a jury

The South Carolina Supreme Court recently issued a decision that clarifies state law with regard to statutes of limitations in medical malpractice cases. Patients who have sustained injuries as an alleged result of hospital malpractice must adhere to filing deadlines for lawsuits.

These deadlines are known as statutes of limitations. If a prospective plaintiff tries to file a medical malpractice lawsuit after the applicable statute of limitations expires, that case is likely to be thrown out by the court. While this seems cut-and-dried, whether or not a plaintiff has adhered to the filing deadlines may sometimes not be clear. For example, the full extent of a patient’s injuries may not be immediately evident when the incident occurs. This may make it difficult to establish a starting point for the time limit.

Medical malpractice reforms in S.C.

A few years ago, South Carolina legislators passed medical malpractice reform laws that had made it more difficult for prospective plaintiffs to hold doctors and hospitals accountable for negligent acts. Patients were required to find a medical expert who was willing to evaluate the case. Then, that expert would have to file a sworn affidavit to the effect that the allegations in the hospital malpractice lawsuit had merit. Then, the plaintiff and the defendants would need to consider a settlement before a trial could occur. In S.C., the plaintiff could move forward with the lawsuit only when mediation efforts are unsuccessful.

In S.C., the statute of limitations for filing a hospital malpractice lawsuit is three years. However, the S.C. Supreme Court recently determined that the state law regarding the deadlines is unclear. The discrepancy was with regard to whether a plaintiff could file a notice of intent to file a malpractice lawsuit before the statute of limitations expired. This notice would then give the plaintiff another 45 days to clear the hurdles necessary to proceed.

Decision supports patients’ rights

One patient in South Carolina, Vicki Wilkinson, did exactly that. However, her malpractice suit was dismissed in 2012 prior to trial. The presiding judge ruled that Wilkinson had not filed her claim before the deadline and did not complete the filings in the necessary manner.

In a 4-1 decision, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision. The court ruled that the legal precedent “permit medical malpractice cases to proceed on the merits rather than to affirm unwarranted dismissals based on technical noncompliance with the medical malpractice statutes.” In other words, the strength of the plaintiff’s case is more important than meeting strict deadlines.

While the decision is a boon for patients and prospective plaintiffs, the South Carolina Hospital Association doesn’t see it that way. The organization filed a friend of the court brief with regard to the Wilkinson case, arguing in favor of dismissal because granting an extended deadline would be detrimental to hospitals in the state. A representative of the S.C. Hospital Association argued that a decision in favor of Wilkinson would be applicable to future hospital malpractice lawsuits in the state.