A statute of limitations is a law that limits the amount of time that a plaintiff has to file a particular type of case. For Texas breach of contract cases, the statute of limitations is four years. For medical malpractice cases, and all types of negligence, the general statute of limitations is two years.
The analysis isn’t exactly that easy, though.
There are a variety of situations that may extend or toll the statute of limitations in medical negligence cases. For example, some claims involving minors may have a longer statute of limitations. When applicable, plaintiffs’ lawyers may use other doctrines such as fraudulent concealment.
The idea of fraudulent concealment is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an equitable doctrine that prevents defendants who concealed their wrongful conduct from unfairly taking advantage of the statute of limitations.
There are two different types of situations where fraudulent concealment could apply. One is active and the other is passive.
First, let’s talk about the active variety of fraudulent concealment.
It’s fraudulent concealment for a defendant to lie or be dishonest about medical negligence—the classic cover-up scenario. In this situation, the plaintiff’s fraudulent concealment defense to the statute of limitations only extends until the plaintiff discovered the fraud or could have discovered the fraud if he or she had been reasonably diligent. In other words, the fraudulent concealment defense only goes so far.
The second type of fraudulent concealment is the passive type.
If a defendant has a duty to disclose medical malpractice and has actual knowledge that the plaintiff was in fact wrong, but doesn’t speak up, then that’s fraudulent concealment.
A Dallas Court of Appeals opinion, entered on January 15, 2020, discussed prior case precedent about when passive silence by defendant is enough to sustain a fraudulent concealment defense. The case is styled Tarrant v. Baylor Scott & White Medical Center—Frisco, No. 05-18-01129-CV , and holds that:
• Passive silence is only enough if there is a duty.
• The physician-patient relationship is a fiduciary duty and the physician’s duty to disclose ends when the physician-patient relationship ends.
• Physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers don’t have a duty to disclose information once their relationship with the patient ends.
In this important opinion, the court applied these principles in a concerning way that’s not particularly friendly to injured patients. The court held that there’s no tolling (or extension) of the statute of limitations in fraudulent concealment cases where the allegation is passive silence by a healthcare provider beyond termination of the physician-patient or healthcare provider-patient relationship.
In other words, once the patient relationship with the provider ends, the duty to disclose actual knowledge of negligence terminates and the statute of limitations immediately starts ticking. For hospitals, this date will often be the date of discharge. For physicians or surgeons, it may be longer because patients may have a longer-term relationship with them.
These complex rules are just one of the many reasons why it’s important for patients who suspect negligence to hire a top-rated experienced Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer to investigate their claims immediately.