The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday sent two medical malpractice lawsuits back to district court after offering a new opinion on how the statute of limitations can be interpreted.
The decision, which affects a breast cancer patient and a woman who had liver problems as a teenager, could allow more leeway for when patients can file negligence claims.
Justices ruled that the statute’s two-year window should begin when patients know the extent and cause of their illness or injury, not necessarily when their symptoms are initially diagnosed.
“We choose this approach because it is … fair to patients, doctors and the medical malpractice industry,” the court wrote in its ruling.
The district courts, citing previous Supreme Court opinions, had dismissed both malpractice lawsuits after deciding the limitations period had expired.
Justices acknowledged that the lower courts correctly applied the law but said a different interpretation was needed to better protect patients. The Supreme Court said the lawmakers can intervene if they believe the rulings violate the statute’s purpose.
Justices did not rule on whether the defendants were negligent. That will be decided by a jury or judge if the cases go to trial.
Attorney David Elderkin, who is defending Mercy Hospital and a Cedar Rapids doctor in one of the cases, said it appeared the district court rulings were sound.
“Then (the justices) come up with this brand new theory on how the case should be decided,” he said.
Elderkin said he disagrees with the ruling _ which he describes as “out of the blue” _ and believes it makes a complicated issue more complex for both sides.
Elderkin’s clients were named in a lawsuit filed in 2001 in Linn County by then-16-year-old Georgia Rathje and her parents after the girl required a liver transplant.
The Rathjes said Dr. Dwight Schroeder and Mercy were negligent in prescribing Antabuse to treat the teen’s alcohol addiction. The family said the drug caused the girl long-term vomiting, jaundice and eventually led to irreversible liver damage.
The district court ruled the Rathjes could not seek damages in the case because the teen began having severe side effects from the drug in late March 1999 and did not file the lawsuit until April 26, 2001 _ just after the statute’s two-year limit expired.
However, the Supreme Court noted the Rathjes based their lawsuit on the liver damage, which was discovered around May 1999. Justices contend the two-year window should have began at about that time.
Telephone messages left Friday by the Associate Press with the Rathjes’ attorneys and defense attorneys were not immediately returned.
The Supreme Court’s other ruling involved Tamra Murtha, who sued several medical providers in September 2003 for allegedly misdiagnosing her breast cancer.
The district court in Polk County dismissed the case, ruling that a doctor told Murtha in 1998 to have the lump in her left breast removed. Her lawsuit was filed five years after that initial warning.
The Supreme Court noted, however, that Murtha was repeatedly told the lump was benign until a test revealed breast cancer in 2002, one year before she sued.
Her lawsuit names Breast Cancer West and several doctors from various centers, including Steven Cahalan, Paul Keller, Robert Kollmorgen and Gerald Baker.
Telephone messages left Friday with Murtha’s attorney and defense attorneys were not immediately returned.