Kansas Supreme Court Interprets Statute of Limitations

Martin v. Naik, 2013 WL 1850661 (Kan. 2013)

This happened in a medical malpractice action arising from a hospital doctor’s and nurses’ alleged failure to give proper treatment to a diabetic patient, who was acutely ill when he was admitted to the hospital. The alleged negligence occurred on April 8, 2004. The patient died on October 25, 2004. Kansas’s limitations statute provides a 2-year window for filing medical malpractice suits—a period that must be counted from the date of accrual of the plaintiff’s cause of action. The action was filed on October 25, 2006. This action was twofold: the patient’s widow sued the defendants for wrongful death damages, and the patient’s estate filed a survival action for the harm suffered by the patient while he was still alive.

The Court decided that the survival action is barred by the statute of limitations because it was filed 2.5 years after the accrual of the cause of action on April 8, 2004. The estate asked the Court to toll the limitations period till the patient’s death, as the patient was incapacitated between April 8, 2004 and the day on which he passed away, October 25, 2004, but the Court denied this request. The Court held that, since “the legislature stated an objective standard when it provided that a cause of action accrues at the time of the occurrence of the act giving rise to the cause of action “unless the fact of injury is not reasonably ascertainable,” … the fact a particular patient is incapacitated, which would be a subjective factor, does not affect whether the fact of injury was reasonably ascertainable.” Based on this interpretation of the statute, the Court ruled that the patient’s injury was reasonably ascertainable on April 8, 2004.

This decision does away with the “discovery rule” that permits tolling of the limitations period. The Court could interpret the statute as tolling the limitations period when “the fact of injury is not reasonably ascertainable” by a person in the patient’s condition. This interpretation aligned with the language of the tolling provision that prescribes that “the period of limitation shall not commence until the fact of injury becomes reasonably ascertainable to the injured party.” Alas, the Court chose not to go this way.

The Court also decided that the widow’s wrongful death action is not time-barred because “a cause of action for wrongful death accrues on the date of death unless information regarding the fact of death or the wrongful act that causes the death was concealed, altered, falsified, inaccurate, or misrepresented.” The Court reasoned that, since anticipatory wrongful death is not actionable, the limitations period cannot start running prior to the patient’s death. In the case at hand, the patient died on October 25, 2004. Hence, the limitations statute allowed the widow to file her suit on October 25, 2006.