A Trap for the Unwary

The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed a medical malpractice case because the plaintiffs did not comply with the two year statute of limitations applicable to tort claims against federal employees.  See Sanchez v. United States, ___F.3d ____ (1st Cir. 2014).  However, the physician defendants’ status as federal employees was not readily apparent.  Indeed, the First Circuit acknowledged, “The trap for the unwary into which Mr. Sanchez has fallen arises because doctors who work at facilities that may appear to be nongovernmental may nevertheless be deemed federal employees because of the manner in which their employers receive federal funds.”

Generally, a lawsuit in a state tort claim must be brought within three years of when the negligence occurred.  However, tort claims against the federal government are different.  Claims against the federal government must be first presented to the appropriate federal agency within two years of when the negligence occurred.  In medical malpractice cases, this is the Department of Health and Human Services.  In both state and federal law, the discovery rule may extend these time periods where the injury and its causal connection to the defendants could not be determined until a later time.

In Sanchez, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that it should toll the limitations period because they did not know that the doctors involved were federal employees.  While the Court agreed that the federal government could do more to publicize or alleviate the “statute of limitations trap,” the Court did not toll the statute of limitations because the plaintiffs did not conduct any inquiry into the doctors’ status.  The Court indicated that the status of the facilities could be obtained by contacting a hotline or by going to the following website: http://bphc.hrsa.gov/ftca/healthcenters/ftcahcdeemedentitysearch.html.

In New Hampshire some of the providers listed on the website as being federally funded such that its doctors may be deemed to be federal employees under the Federal Tort Claims Act include: Manchester Community Health Center, Goodwin Community Health and Families First of Greater Seacoast.

All medical malpractice cases have the potential to involve federal providers depending on whether there is a federally-funded facility involved in the injured patient’s care.  The consequence of not investigating whether a facility is federally-funded is dire and may result in dismissal of the case.  Our office has handled medical malpractice cases under the Federal Tort Claims Act and is keenly aware of the need to comply with federal law relating to claims involving federal employees.

 

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