Texas Supreme Court upholds ten year limit for medical malpractice lawsuits

The Texas Supreme Court recently held in an 8-1 decision (Tenet Hospitals Ltd. v. Rivera) that medical malpractice lawsuits cannot be filed more than ten years after an injury. This ruling upholds the Texas legislature’s 2003 tort-reform changes to the Medical Liability and Insurance Improvement Act (MLIAA), which were re-codified in the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. One section (Section 74.251b) of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, also known as the “statute of repose,” prohibits medical malpractice claims that are more than ten years from the date of the physician’s alleged dereliction of duty.

Madeline Rodriguez suffered permanent brain injuries during her prenatal period. She had to be delivered by emergency Cesarean section and, due to a lack of oxygen, “is now totally dependent on others for all activities of daily living.” Her mother, Elizabeth Rivera, alleged that this had happened because a treating doctor negligently failed to perform an obstetrical examination the day prior. Ms. Rivera filed notice that she intended to sue the physician and hospital eight years after the alleged injury, but did not file suit until fifteen years after the incident. Rivera constitutionally challenged lower court rulings on open courts and retroactivity grounds.

The court ruled against her on both grounds, saying that Ms. Rivera was aware of her daughter’s claim one year into her three-year period to bring the claim, but she waited over six years to file suit. The court also rejected her retroactivity challenge because legislators had designed the 2003 law for the “compelling public purpose” of increasing access to health care by lowering malpractice insurance premiums. Furthermore, they had allowed a three-year grace period to file suit.

Justice Debra Lehrmann’s dissent criticized the majority for extending a “harsh” ten-year deadline to children “under the false notion that all parents can and do adequately protect their children.” She continued, “… the sad reality is that the needs of too many children — our most valuable resource — are not satisfactorily addressed by their parents.”

Read Justice Guzman’s opinion here

Read Justice Lehrmann’s dissent here

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