California Court of Appeals Clarifies Foreign Body Language for Medical Malpractice Claims

In a recent medical malpractice case, Maher v. County of Alameda, 223 Cal. App. 4th 1340 (2014), the California Court of Appeals had before it the issue of what constitutes a foreign body for the purposes of tolling the relevant statute of limitations.

The plaintiff was treated by several healthcare professionals following a gunshot wound to the abdomen. The surgeons implanted a stent in the plaintiff during an emergency abdominal surgery. The plaintiff alleged that he was unaware of the stent’s placement until it was discovered and removed following treatment for abdominal pain many years later. The plaintiff sued the health care providers that had treated him for negligence, claiming that they failed to remove the stent within a certain period of time and failed to inform him of its placement or of the fact that it was designed to be temporary.

When he sought treatment, the physicians treating him at that time informed the plaintiff that the stent was designed to be used only temporarily, and that it should have been removed some 3-6 months following the placement. It should not have been allowed to remain for over 14 years. The doctors also stated that the device would have lost any efficacy it may have had within a year of placement, and at some time around then it would have started to disintegrate and move from the location where it was originally placed. Lastly, the stent had to be removed immediately, since it was within 24 hours of the plaintiff seeking treatment and the stent being discovered.

The defendants successfully had the case dismissed on statute of limitations grounds, and the plaintiff appealed. The plaintiff alleged that the statute of limitations was tolled under a “foreign body” exception of the California Code of Civil Procedure. The trial court ruled the “foreign body” tolling exception did not apply to the stent on the basis that a device intentionally left in the body for a therapeutic purpose did not qualify.

The statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims is three years from the date of the injury, or one year from discovery of an issue, with the limitation tolled only for fraud, intentional concealment, or the presence of essentially non-medical foreign bodies. The purpose of allowing for the statute of the limitations to be tolled, or in other words paused, was to ensure that diligent plaintiffs would not be unfairly denied the opportunity to pursue their valid claims for some reason beyond their control.

The standard for foreign bodies is that the statute of limitations is tolled on the basis of the fact that the harm continued until the foreign body was removed, the operation was not totally complete until the object was removed, or the plaintiff was unaware of the object until it was removed and therefore could not have otherwise been aware of its presence by the exercise of due care. The Court of Appeals found that the stent, although it was medical in nature, was left in long after its intended purpose, and thus the foreign body exception in order to toll the statute of limitations was proper. It thus reversed the trial court’s ruling in regards to that finding.

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