Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Addresses Tolling Provision Found in MCARE Act

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed MCARE’s tolling provision recently in the case of Reibenstein v. Barrax, No. 32 MAP 2021 (Pa. Dec. 12, 2022) (Op. by Wecht, J.) (Sallie, Mundy, J. and Dougherty, J., concurring/dissenting).

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiff in this medical malpractice action had brought her claims against the Defendant after the two (2) year statute of limitations had expired.

The court noted that the Plaintiff’s death certificate indisputably and correctly noted the medical cause of the decedent’s death.

In this decision, the court made a distinction between a reference to a decedent's manner of death and a decedent's cause of death.  In the context of the operation of the statute of limitations as stated under the MCARE Act, the court noted that the issue involved the legal cause of death and the medical cause of death.

The Court noted that MCARE provides a two year statute of limitations in death actions with the statute beginning to run at the time of the decedent's death.  The Act provides that the statute of limitations will be tolled where there is an affirmative misrepresentation or fraudulent concealment of the cause of death.    

Here, the Plaintiff brought their claims against one of the medical defendants after the two year period had run.  The Court noted that the decedent's death certificate undisputedly and correctly noted the medical cause of the decedent's death.

The trial court had ruled that the phrase “cause of death” referred specifically and only to the direct medical cause of death.  Accordingly, the trial court granted summary judgment to the Defendant doctor under §513(d) of the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Act (MCARE Act).

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court decision and interpreted the “cause of death” on the death certificate more broadly to cover considerations associated with the manner of death, that is, the legal cause.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decision by the Superior Court and held that MCARE’s tolling provision could not support the breadth of the reading suggested by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

The court in this matter essentially ruled that the reference to the “cause of death” refers only to the medical meaning of the phrase and not the legal interpretation.

This decision is otherwise notable in that Pennsylvania Supreme Court majority determined that the tolling provision under the MCARE Act for instances when the decedent’s cause of death has been allegedly concealed refers only to the medical cause of death.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of the Majority Opinion by Justice Wecht in this decision may click this LINK.

The Concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Justice Dougherty may be viewed HERE.

The Concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Justice Sallie Mundy may be viewed HERE.

Source of image:  Photo by Manasvita on Unsplash.com.

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