March 31, 2021 | Oklahoma Law
Statutes of limitations exist to provide certainty. You would never sleep at night if you had to worry about a lawsuit from your car accident 20 years ago. More importantly, you would never be able to afford insurance after a car accident if state laws did not cut off liability at some point.
But statutes of limitations sometimes impose unfair limitations on injured people. If you were injured but did not discover the injury until later, you would still want your day in court. Similarly, if a relative died and it took time to discover the cause of death, you would want an opportunity to seek compensation for the death if it was due to someone else’s negligence.
Here are the things you should know about the ways that statutes of limitation work and how Oklahoma’s discovery rule works in conjunction with them.
Statutes of Limitations in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has several different statutes of limitations ranging from one year for intentional torts to five years for a breach of contract. The statute of limitations for most cases begins when the cause of action “accrues.” A cause of action accrues on the date of the act or omission that caused the harm.
Personal Injury Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for a personal injury is much clearer. This statute of limitations begins on the date of injury or death and runs for two years.
Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for medical malpractice is more forgiving. The statute of limitations for medical malpractice runs for two years from the date that the injured person discovered the injury. The time limit could start before an injured person’s “actual” discovery of an injury if they could’ve discovered it earlier through the exercise of reasonable diligence.
Since this statute of limitations begins with knowledge of the injury, it uses a “discovery rule.”
Reasons for a Discovery Rule in Medical Malpractice Cases
Legislatures implement a discovery rule for a few reasons. Let’s take a look at what those reasons are.
Doctors Control the Information
A doctor could create misleading medical records to cover up a medical error. The doctor could also mislead a patient by persuading the patient that no medical error had occurred. For instance, they could convince the patient that their medical problems were normal side effects or complications.
Discovery Might Require a Second Opinion
Patients do not usually discover medical errors on their own. They lack the training and equipment to identify a medical error. Consequently, a patient might not know about a medical error until a different doctor examines them.
Medical Errors Might Have Delayed Effects
A medical error might not become apparent until long after treatment was done. For example, an instrument or sponge left inside of a patient after surgery might not cause symptoms until it interferes with a vital organ. If the patient died during a procedure, the next of kin might not discover that a medical error caused the death until after an autopsy was performed.
Under each of these circumstances, Oklahoma’s discovery rule for medical malpractice would give the patient time to get copies of their medical records or seek a second opinion before filing a lawsuit.
How the Statute of Limitations in Medical Malpractice Works
Suppose that a patient files a medical malpractice lawsuit more than two years after the alleged medical error occurred. The health care provider would raise the statute of limitations as grounds for dismissing the lawsuit.
In response, the patient would need to assert enough evidence to show that they had actually met the deadline to file. They would do this by showing they discovered their injury sometime after the medical occurred.
For example, the patient could represent to the judge that they had first experienced abdominal pain six months earlier. The patient could also claim that the pain resulted in an X-ray that revealed a clamp had been left inside the patient during the procedure.
This would probably overcome the motion to dismiss. The patient would then present evidence about the medical error and the resulting injuries at trial.
Conversely, imagine that a patient ignored nausea and vomiting after taking some prescription medication and decided to continue to use the medication. The patient did not call the doctor or the pharmacy.
Perhaps the patient even finished off the medication, experiencing stomach pain the entire time. Even after the patient was done with the medicine, they continued to experience nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. More than two years later, a doctor diagnosed the patient with an ulcer that was caused by taking the wrong medicine. The patient might attempt to sue the pharmacy for mixing up the prescription.
The patient in this scenario might have discovered the existence of an ulcer within two years of the lawsuit. But the patient could have discovered it two years earlier if they had not ignored their symptoms.
In this situation, a judge might grant the pharmacy’s motion to dismiss the case on the grounds that the patient should have discovered the injury earlier by exercising reasonable diligence.
Tolling a Statute of Limitations
In addition to the discovery rule, Oklahoma law provides avenues for pausing or extending a statute of limitations. This allows an injured person to file a lawsuit after the statute of limitations would otherwise expire.
Some of the situations that can pause or extend a statute of limitations include:
If the state prosecutes a person that caused your injury, that same court can suspend the statute of limitations during the course of the at-fault party’s incarceration.
Suppose that a drunk driver injures you in a car accident and receives a penalty of two years of jail time. A court could pause the statute of limitations during the jail sentence so that you could file a lawsuit for damages after the drunk driver finished their sentence.
Absence from Oklahoma
If someone causes an injury and then flees the state of Oklahoma, a court may suspend the statute of limitations until the person returns to the state.
If you suffer from a severe injury, such as a brain injury, your injuries might incapacitate you. A court can suspend a statute of limitations until you recover from your legal disability.
Avoiding the Statute of Limitations
The best way to avoid a problem with the statute of limitations is to work diligently to protect your rights. While two years might seem like a long time, remember that your injuries might limit what you can do. Consider contacting a lawyer as soon as you can so that you can meet any legal deadlines and recover appropriate compensation.