The Pennsylvania Supreme Court took a closer look at a statute placing time limits on medical malpractice claims and found a conflict with the state constitution.
Susan Yanakos, a Pennsylvania woman who had been diagnosed with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD), had been advised that she would need a liver transplant in the summer of 2003. AATD is a genetic condition where the body does not produce enough of a particular enough protein synthesized by the liver to help protect the lungs from damage. Ms. Yanakos was informed by her physicians that her AATD had progressed to the point where a transplant was her best option. She was further informed that she was not a candidate for a cadaver liver. At this point, her son Christopher volunteered to donate a lobe of his liver to his mother.
Before Christopher was able to donate, he underwent extensive testing to ensure that he would be a suitable donor candidate for his mother. Christopher disclosed that several of his other family members suffered from AATD, but he was unsure whether he had the condition. He underwent testing specifically for AATD and was ultimately approved as a donor for the procedure.
Twelve years later, the Yanakos family sued the hospital for medical malpractice, claiming that the transplant failed due to the fact that Christopher actually did suffer from AATD. Not only did he suffer from AATD at the time of the transplant, but his test results came back positive and he was never informed of this.
The hospital claimed that the suit was barred from proceeding due to the fact that Pennsylvania has a seven-year statute of repose. A statute of repose is a type of law that limits the amount of time when a civil claim may be brought. Under Pennsylvania law at the time, an action for medical malpractice must be commenced no later than seven years after a defendant’s act or failure to act. There were, however, two statutory exceptions to this rule. This first extends the amount of time to file a malpractice claim when a foreign object left in a body. The second governs when one is bringing a claim on behalf of a minor child. The law was enacted with the legislative purpose of controlling malpractice insurance costs and premiums.
The trial court agreed with the defendant hospital that the claim was barred under the statute of repose. The plaintiff’s family appealed the decision, claiming that under the Pennsylvania State Constitution, “[a]ll courts shall be open; and every man for an injury done him in his lands” conflicts with the law barring claims such as his one after a seven-year period.
The PA Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the plaintiffs. It found that the current statute of repose did in fact conflict with the PA Constitution’s above-cited provision while lacking any substantial relationship to the legislative goal of controlling malpractice costs.