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Many of us are taught at a young age to trust the men and women of the cloth; cloth in this case consisting of a white poly-cotton blend lab coat. In most cases, we trust our physicians with our lives and the lives of our loved ones. As patients, we listen and do as directed by our doctors because afterall, they do know best. In the context of medical malpractice, however, this doctor/patient relationship can become tenuous when the patient feels the doctor’s care has dropped below the acceptable standard and resulted in injury. Trusting patients who feel they have been injured at the hands of a physician quickly turn into inquisitive clients in search of justice. Our firm recently received a favorable Opinion from the Fourth District Court of Appeal in the context of a medical malpractice action. Specifically, the decision hinged on the statute of limitations in the medical malpractice arena and when the time for said cause of action begins to accrue.
Florida Statue 95.11(4)(b) governs the limitations period for a medical malpractice action. The section states that an action for medical malpractice shall be commenced within 2 years from the time the incident giving rise to the action occurred or within 2 years from the time the incident is discovered, or should have been discovered with the exercise of due diligence . . . .” In Tanner v. Hartog, 618 So. 2d 177, 181 (Fla. 1993), the Florida Supreme Court articulated the standard to be applied as follows: “the knowledge of the injury as referred to in the rule as triggering the statute of limitations means not only knowledge of the injury but also that there is a reasonable possibility that the injury was cause by medical malpractice.” Certainly there are injuries that clearly are caused by medical malpractice. For example, going into surgery to have a cyst removed from your hand and waking to find yourare missing your left leg. But what happens when you experience a less conspicuous injury and although your body is telling you one thing, the physician whose continuing care you are under is reassuring you that all is well and that in time, things will be better? This is the precise issue involved in our case. Essentially there was a factual dispute as to when the patient knew or should have been aware that her injuries may have been the result of medical malpractice. And, instead of submitting that question to the jury for determination, the judge decided at summary judgment that the statute of limitations had run. The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the judge’s decision in our favor and found that the judge had erred in taking that question from the jury. The Court, recognizing the inherent trust placed upon a physician by a patient, stated “too great is the faith laypersons place in their physicians for the law to impute a duty on them to investigate malpractice in every change in diagnosis or treatment.” (quoting from Cunningham v. Lowery, 724 So. 2d 176, 179 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999). Thus, it appears the courts have tried to impose a balance between patient accountability and the importance of preserving a trusting doctor/patient relationship during and throughout treatment. Most important, however, is that the question will often hinge upon a factual determination and will more often than not be left to the province of the jury to decide.