Supreme Court says jury should determine whether medical malpractice case was filed in timely manner

By Charmaine Little | Nov 2, 2018

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor   ICS Media Database

HARRISBURG - On Oct. 17, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a lower court erred when it granted summary judgment to a number of health care providers sued for medical malpractice.

The Supreme Court determined summary judgment should not have been given to the health care providers that were sued, including St. Luke’s Hospital and Nazareth Family Practice. Nancy and Nicholas Nicolaou sued the organizations and a number of individuals for their alleged failure to diagnose and treat Nancy Nicolaou’s Lyme disease. 

Her medical setback came after she was bitten by a tick, which then gave her a rash as well as numbness, fatigue and pain. One of the medical physicians at St. Luke’s gave her a Lyme disease test, which came back negative. 

She then received a second Lyme disease test from Nazareth Family Practice, which also came back negative. She went on to receive treatment from two of the physicians listed as defendants, who gave her a third and fourth Lyme disease test, with both coming back negative. A fifth physician then told Nicolaou she believed she had Lyme disease and gave her antibiotics, which improved her symptoms. 

The Nicolaous later filed a lawsuit within two years of her positive test for Lyme disease.

While the trial court granted the defendants' summary judgment, stating that the medical malpractice lawsuit was time-barred, and the Superior Court affirmed, the Supreme Court instead reversed the summary judgment, remanded it to trial court and vacated the Superior Court’s ruling. 

“We hold that summary judgment was granted improperly because the determination of whether plaintiffs acted with due diligence under the circumstances presented is one of fact for a jury to decide,” the Supreme Court stated.

It said the Superior Court should not have ruled that the couple were aware or should have been aware of Nancy Nicolaou’s Lyme disease status within her first few visits of visiting the physician that ultimately diagnosed her. 

The Supreme Court pointed out that courts must look at what a reasonable person would have known if they were faced with the same issues of Nicolaou, and based on the evidence, it’s difficult to tell if the plaintiffs knew or even should have known if Nicolaou’s injuries and systems were actually that of Lyme disease.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court said a jury is the party that should decide if a non-medical professional would be able to determine they had Lyme disease after not only being given multiple negative tests but also being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis instead. The Supreme Court also considered the plaintiff’s lack of health insurance that would pay for costs of more testing.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, Justice Christine Donohue and Justice Sallie Mundy concurred on the opinion.

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