In the new unreported Maryland Appellate Court case of Grgac v. Dash, the court examined an appeal against a summary judgment in favor of a doctor and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The primary legal question centered on the applicability of the statute of limitations in a medical malpractice case concerning the alleged failure to diagnose multiple sclerosis (MS).
The appellate court upheld the summary judgment, emphasizing that the injury, as defined in medical malpractice law, occurred when the patient first experienced symptoms indicative of MS, which in Grgac’s case was no later than 2011.
Furthermore, in addressing Grgac’s request for an extension of time to file an opposition, the court found no abuse of discretion in its denial, underscoring the importance of adhering to procedural timelines in spite of the plaintiff’s contention that she was put in a really tough spot with her lawyer withdrawing in the middle of the case.
This decision underscores the strict interpretation of statutes of limitations in medical malpractice cases, marking the period for legal action from the onset of symptoms, not the diagnosis. It serves as a cautionary note on the urgency of seeking legal recourse in suspected cases of medical negligence.
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Facts of Grgac v. Dash
Ms. Grgac, the appellant, began experiencing numbness in her hands in 2008 and underwent an MRI as part of a research study at Kennedy Krieger Institute. During her initial consultation with a physician in November 2008, Ms. Grgac presented an MRI from earlier that year.
The physician, not a radiologist, reviewed this MRI and concluded that her symptoms were consistent with carpal tunnel syndrome or nerve compression, rather than MS. Over the following years, Grgac experienced various symptoms, including balance issues and neck pain, leading to further MRIs. In 2017, she was diagnosed with regressing relapsing MS.
Grgac filed a medical negligence claim against Dr. Dash and his employer, Johns Hopkins Hospital, in 2020, alleging that Dr. Dash had failed to diagnose her MS in 2008.
The Circuit Court for Baltimore City, however, granted summary judgment to the defendants, based on the statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims.
Maryland’s Malpractice Statute of Repose
Let’s take a deeper look at this law. In Maryland, the statute of repose for medical malpractice claims plays a crucial role in limiting the timeframe within which such claims can be filed. As outlined in the Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings §5–109, a claim for damages arising from medical malpractice must be filed within the earlier of: (1) five years from the time the injury was committed, or (2) three years from the date the injury was discovered.
The statute of repose essentially sets an absolute time limit of five years from when the negligent act or omission occurred. This rule applies regardless of when the injury was discovered or should have been discovered. This is distinct from the statute of limitations, which typically starts running from the date the injury is discovered or reasonably should have been discovered.
The reason for the ruling is what is certainly an extremely unfair rule in Maryland. In Maryland, such claims must be filed within the earlier of five years from the time the injury was committed or three years from when the injury was discovered.
No one talks much about how ridiculous this rule is. It is. Under this rule, you lose your claim before you even know you have a claim. How could that be justice? This rule also disproportionately affects those with complex medical issues where the linkage between a healthcare provider’s action and the injury isn’t immediately clear.
Did this doctor commit malpractice? Who knows? With the statute of limitations killing this claim before it gets off the ground, we will never know.
Appellate Court Holding
Let’s break down the ruling:
Summary Judgment and Statute of Limitations
The court’s affirmation of summary judgment was anchored in the interpretation of the statute of limitations. The crucial point was determining when the “injury” occurred. The court relied on precedent that defined an injury in the context of medical malpractice as the point when a negligent act is first coupled with harm. This definition is significant because it establishes the start of the limitations period regardless of the patient’s awareness or the ultimate severity of the condition. The court concluded that Grgac’s injury occurred no later than 2011, when her symptoms were sufficiently indicative of MS, even though she was only diagnosed in 2017.
The Role of Expert Testimony
The court heavily considered the testimony of Grgac’s expert witness, who linked her symptoms dating back to 2008 and 2010 directly to MS. This testimony was critical in establishing the timeline of her injury, demonstrating that the symptoms were not isolated incidents but part of a progressive, undiagnosed condition. Paradoxically, the defendants are trying to extend the negligence to get win the statute of repose battle.
Motion for Extension of Time
Plaintiff also argued the court should have given her more time to respond to a motion for summary judgment. Ms. Grgac’s lawyer withdrew from the case. She alleges a complete mess: Her trial attorney delayed reviewing the summary judgment motion and, upon eventually doing so, did not submit a written response.
Her efforts to secure new legal representation within the limited time frame were documented, but the newly engaged attorney was apparently unable to prepare a response to the summary judgment motion in the short time available.
In denying Grgac’s request for additional time to file an opposition to the summary judgment, the court examined the principles of judicial discretion. The appellate court found no abuse in this decision, emphasizing that Grgac had sufficient notice and opportunity to prepare her case.
Abuse of discretion is the key to this part of the case. The bar is high. Appellate courts are unlikely to find that the court’s holding plaintiffs’ feet to the scheduling order is “well removed from any center mark imagined by the reviewing court and beyond the fringe of what that court deems minimally acceptable.” Moreover, it was probably harmless error in this case even if there was error in not granting an extension.