Professional Liability Alert: Non-MICRA Statutes of Limitations Can Toll MICRA Limitations Periods

In Coastal Surgical Institute v. Blevins (B254787, filed 1/12/15) the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, held that the tolling provisions of Insurance Code section 11583 apply to the one-year limitations period for medical malpractice cases. Section 11583 provides that the applicable statute of limitations is tolled when advance or partial payment is made to an injured and unrepresented person without notifying him or her of the applicable limitations period. The limitations period is tolled from the time of payment until written notice is actually given. The statute’s purpose is to prevent an injured person from being lulled into a false sense of complacency about the need to sue, where payment may show an apparent cooperativeness by the medical provider or insurer. Under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA), a medical malpractice action must be brought within 3 years of the date of injury or 1 year after the plaintiff discovers, or should have discovered through reasonable diligence, the injury.

The defendant surgical facility had paid the plaintiff for medical expenses he incurred in treating a knee infection. At the time of payment, the plaintiff was not represented by counsel, and the defendant did not give written notice of the applicable statute of limitations for a medical malpractice action. The plaintiff filed the action more than 15 months after receipt of payment. The defendant argued that Section 11583 does not apply to medical malpractice cases and that only certain sections of MICRA, and no others, control how a medical malpractice action is tolled. Section 11583 has commonly been applied to other tort cases, such as auto accidents. Belton v. Bowers Ambulance Service, a case decided by the California Supreme Court in 1999, however, held that the MICRA statutes do not prevent tolling that extends the total limitations period less than or up to 3 years (the maximum time under MICRA).

The court, relying on Belton, held that the tolling provisions of Section 11583 could extend the 1-year limitations period for medical malpractice cases, up to a maximum of 3 years from the date of injury. In other words, a non-MICRA statute of limitations can toll the 1-year period but not the 3-year maximum. Because the plaintiff filed his complaint after the 1-year period but before the 3-year maximum, his claim was timely.

In circumstances where an advance or partial payment has been made to an unrepresented injury victim, Coastal Surgical Institute makes clear that issuing a payment without obtaining a full release or notifying of the applicable limitations period will leave the statute of limitations open for up to 3 years.

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January 20, 2015