The plaintiff in Arteaga v. United States of America, 711 F.3d 828 (2013) was the mother of a child who was injured at birth. The mother accused Erie Family Health Center, where the mother received prenatal care, of medical malpractice. Erie was a private health center that received grant money from the U.S. Public Health Service. As a result, Erie’s employees were deemed federal employees and thus the claim was governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit because the claim was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations for tort claims brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court held the state statute that extended the statute of limitations for a suit on behalf of a child victim did not apply to claims governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act, which lacks a comparable provision.
So what does a Seventh Circuit case out of Illinois have to do with you?
If your claim is one governed by the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Act is your exclusive remedy. And North Carolina’s statute that tolls the statute of limitations for a minor child during minority does not apply. You must file your claim with the appropriate agency within two years after the claim arose.
4 Lawyers and a Lesson
Arteaga is interesting for other reasons, too. The child’s mother went through four lawyers. The first one told her he didn’t think she had a case. The second one agreed to represent her, but 16 months later he withdrew. He did tell her before withdrawing if she filed a tort suit under Illinois law the statute of limitations would be eight years because her injured child was a minor. The mother consulted a third lawyer who referred her to a fourth and final lawyer. The lawyer filed a malpractice case in Illinois state court against the health center and its midwife employees. Neither the child’s mother, nor any of the four lawyers, were aware the claim had to be brought under the Federal Tort Claim Act. More than two years after the child’s birth, a lawyer from another firm told the child’s lawyer that he was in the wrong court. The lawyer filed the requisite federal administrative claim and ultimately filed suit in federal district court. This, of course, led to the dismissal of the case based on the statute of limitations.
The plaintiff argued her claim did not accrue until she learned the health center could be sued for malpractice only under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court dismissed this argument saying knowledge only of injury and of the likely cause of the injury is all that is required to start the statute of limitations running.
The plaintiff also argued her claim did not accrue – that is the statute of limitations did not begin to run – until she first learned negligence by her prenatal caregivers at the health center had caused the child’s injuries. The court dismissed this argument as well. The court said all that is required to start the statute of limitations running is knowledge of the injury and that the defendant or an employee of the defendant acting within the scope of his or her employment may have caused the injury.
So remember, if you are bringing your claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and your client is a minor, North Carolina’s statute that tolls the statute of limitations during the child’s minority does not apply. You must file your claim within two years after the claim arose.
Mark Scruggs is a claims attorney with Lawyers Mutual specializing in litigation, workers compensation and family law matters. You can reach Mark at 800.662.8843 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.