Libby v. The Eights Judicial District Court, — P.3d —, 2014 WL 2428791 (Nev. 2014)

June 9, 2014

Interpreting Nevada’s Statute of Limitations for Medical Malpractice Suits

The Nevada Supreme Court recently delivered an important decision interpreting the state’s statute of limitations for medical malpractice suits, NRS 41A.097(2), which provides that “an action for injury … against a provider of health care may not be commenced more than 3 years after the date of injury or 1 year after the plaintiff discovers or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered the injury, whichever occurs first….”

In the case at bar, a patient waited for more than 3 years to file a suit against her orthopedic surgeon. The suit alleged that the surgeon negligently failed to eliminate the patient’s knee infection. Because the infection’s symptoms persisted for more than 3 years, the Court ruled that the patient’s suit was time-barred.

The patient relied on the Court’s prior rulings concerning a plaintiff’s actual or constructive knowledge of the “injury” that activates the one-year countdown under the statute. According to these rulings, the plaintiff must be actually or constructively aware not only of the injury itself, but also of its underlying cause. Winn v. Sunrise Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 277 P.3d 458, 461–62 (Nev. 2012); Massey v. Litton, 669 P.2d 248, 250–52 (Nev. 1983). The patient asked the Court to interpret the three-year limitation period similarly, but the Court denied this request. “Commencement of a malpractice action” – it explained – “is bound by two time frames tied to two different events. In Massey and Winn, we construed the one-year limitation period as requiring a plaintiff to be aware of the cause of his or her injury, and while Ms. Hamilton asks us to apply the same construction to the three-year limitation period, such a reading would render NRS 41A.097(2)’s three-year limitation period irrelevant.” [The Court should have attributed the hypothetical redundancy to the one-year period: A.S.]

Correspondingly, the Court ruled that the “three-year limitation period begins to run once there is an appreciable manifestation of the plaintiff’s injury” and that “a plaintiff need not be aware of the cause of his or her injury in order for the three-year limitations period to begin to run.” This ruling relied on California court decisions that interpreted California’s statute of limitations—drafted similarly to Nevada’s—in the same way.