LIMITATION PERIODS IN MEDICAL NEGLIGENCE CLAIMS

LIMITATION PERIODS IN MEDICAL NEGLIGENCE CLAIMS

The limitation periods, or deadlines for commencing a Court action in Singapore, are prescribed by the Limitation Act. The effect of these deadlines is that should one fail to commence action by the limitation period, the legal action may be time-barred and the potential claimant would lose his right to claim for compensation.

The issue of limitation periods is especially pertinent in medical negligence actions, as the effects of medical malpractice (such as misdiagnosis, mistreatment or surgical misjudgment) often remain latent or are only undiscovered until several years later. In such instances, will the limitation period preclude a patient claimant from suing his/her medical practitioner in Court?

3- YEARS AS THE STARTING POINT

The limitation period for one to claim for personal injury suffered as a result of medical negligence is 3 years from the date on which the injury was sustained or the negligent act was committed.

However, if the claimant did not have the requisite knowledge to bring an action for damages in respect of the relevant injury, the limitation period would only start to run 3 years from the earliest date on which knowledge of such negligence was obtained. Knowledge here may refer to actual or constructive knowledge that medical negligence may have been committed.

In Pai Lily v Yeo Peng Hock Henry [2001] SGHC 58 (“Pai Liliy”), the plaintiff patient consulted the defendant doctor on 3 occasions in 1996 for a serious eye infection which subsequently left her blinded in that eye. The plaintiff’s claim for negligence against the defendant doctor was that he had failed to assert that her eye condition was at all serious and did not refer her to a hospital for further treatment nor offered her the proper treatment. The defendant’s counsel had submitted that the plaintiff’s claim was time barred as the Writ was only filed in January 2000, more than 3 years past the limitation period. In allowing the plaintiff’s claim, the Court had held that the claim was not time barred as the patient plaintiff was entitled to a reasonable period of time to seek expert assistance in order to determine if her injury was indeed caused by damage resulting from negligence on the defendant’s part.

As such, although the limitation period for medical negligence injury cases is 3 years as the starting point, this is not a blanket rule and would depend on the actual circumstances as to when knowledge of such negligence was first obtained.

CASE STUDY: KHOO TECK PUAT HOSPITAL’S [“KTPH”] MISDIAGNOSIS

The Straits Times has recently reported on Khoo Teck Puat Hospital’s misdiagnosis of over 200 patient breast cancer conditions. [See: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/breast-cancer-test-error-khoo-teck-puat-hospital-refunds-13890192]. According to the authorities, at least 200 patients were wrongly classified as being positive for HER2 – a gene which controls healthy cell growth- instead of HER2 negative, due to a lab error in KTPH. These patients were wrongly classified as having a more aggressive form of breast cancer than their actual condition, and as a result, may have received inappropriate medical treatment.

According to the Straits Times article, the hospital is currently reviewing the bills of the affected patients and the costs incurred by these patients may be fully refunded. However, aside from reimbursement of medical expenses, these affected patients may have a claim for medical negligence against the hospital and/or the involved medical practitioners, if any.

Given that KTPH has admitted to their errors in diagnosis, liability would in all likelihood be easily established in a potential medical negligence suit against the hospital. It must however be noted that any potential claimant for this incident would still have to prove causation of their injury because of KTPH’s alleged misdiagnosis and mistreatment. In addition, there may be a limitation period issue given that patients were wrongly tested positive for HER2 as early as in 2012. Some of these patients seeking to make a medical negligence claim may face time-bar issues given that more than 3 years has lapsed since the misdiagnosis by KTPH. Nonetheless, in view of the Court’s approach in Pai Lily and other similar cases, it is likely that the limitation period would not start to run until actual or constructive knowledge of such misdiagnosis was formed. This is so considering that any patient should not reasonably be expected to know that such misdiagnosis had occurred prior to KTPH’s own discovery.

CONCLUSION

The above article highlights the importance of taking legal action promptly, in view of issues with limitation period. If you suspect that you may have received the wrong medical treatment or diagnosis, it is critical that you seek legal advice without further delay so that you may be informed of your rights.

Sources:

Straits Times article on 4 January 2021: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/breast-cancer-test-error-khoo-teck-puat-hospital-refunds-13890192

Pai Lily v Yeo Peng Hock Henry [2001] 1 SLR(R) 517 SGHC 58