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Lawmakers Debate Extending Statute of Limitations in Personal Injury Cases

May 14, 2015 

— Plaintiffs bar, doctors face off in statute of limitations debate —

by Christian Nolan, The Connecticut Law Tribune

In most instances, Connecticut parents have just two years after a mishap to bring personal injury claims in court on behalf of their children.

Plaintiffs lawyers are saying that’s not long enough, and that Connecticut needs to catch up with the rest of the country. Connecticut is the state with such a rigid statute of limitations. For instance, 40 states give teens who turn 18 two additional years to file lawsuits for injuries they sustained as a minor. “It makes no sense to me that we’re the only state in the country that doesn’t have this law,” said Angelo Ziotas, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association who practices at Silver Golub & Teitell in Stamford. (As it stands, the only flexibility in the Connecticut law is to give parties an additional year to file suit if the injury is not discoverable within two years.)

The CTLA has ramped up efforts this year to convince the General Assembly to pass a law allowing parents seven years to bring a lawsuit on behalf of their injured child, or one year from the date of their 18th birthday, whichever is less time. In the rare instances when a teenager is 17 1/2 at the time of the accident, the teen would still get the full two years to bring a suit.

The measure was supported by the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee and now awaits full votes by the House and Senate. In 2007 and 2009, similar bills passed through the Judiciary Committee without a single opposition vote, but were not considered by the full legislature. The current chairmen of the Judiciary Committee, William Tong and Eric Coleman, did not respond to interview requests on the current bill.

Numerous medical groups, including the Connecticut State Medical Society, are opposed to the legislation, fearing it will open the door to more lawsuits in medical malpractice cases. Michael Neubert, of Neubert, Pepe & Monteith in New Haven, has testified before the General Assembly against the legislation on the group’s behalf.

Neubert argues that the legislation would result in significantly increased medical malpractice premiums and make it difficult for doctors to defend themselves against “stale claims” that could potentially be brought up to seven years after the injury. Neubert argues that passage of the measure would contribute to the “less-than-physician-friendly environment that already exists in the state of Connecticut” and would lead physicians to abandon certain medical specialties, leave the state or choose not to come to Connecticut in the first place.

“The impact will be to expose physicians to stale claims with significant financial exposure, especially birth injury claims, and that will make it much more difficult to defend these claims,” Neubert told lawmakers. “[It] will significantly increase the cost of practicing medicine in the state, resulting in reduced access to medical care to the citizens of the state.”

Neubert also pointed out that in many states that do extend the statute of limitation for minors, there are caps on damages in med-mal cases. No such caps exist in Connecticut. Neubert told lawmakers: “I think that it’s a mistake to try to look at any one piece of legislation in a vacuum and make a determination even if it seems like a good idea.”

At a public hearing, lawmakers asked CTLA members to respond to Neubert’s arguments. Michael Walsh, of Walsh Woodard in Hartford, said there’s no evidence of physicians fleeing, or medical malpractice premiums spiraling out of control, in states that extend statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits involving minors.

“Whenever those statements are made that doctors are being driven from the state in droves, that insurance premiums are going to go through the roof, I think the best question each one of you can ask is show me. Show me the evidence,” Walsh told lawmakers. “I’d love to see some evidence to suggest that this is going to put insurance premiums through the roof, but quite candidly, I don’t think that evidence exists.”

But, in an interview, Ziotas said that it often takes the full impact of an injury years to manifest itself.

“Lawyers get contacted by parents who didn’t think their child had a serious injury and then they go to school and are told the child needs special education,” said Ziotas. “[The parents] find out their child was hurt in an accident or child birth and are completely out of luck. Those are tough calls. It’s a very strange system. A parent is told their child will be fine for years and find out they’re not and have no remedy while in other states they have a remedy.”

Ziotas provided the example of a 2-year-old whose leg is fractured in a car accident. There’s a part of the bone called the growth plate, which when injured could cause the leg to not grow to its normal length. Under current law, the parents would have to bring suit within two years, not knowing the full extent of the growth plate damage. With the proposed bill, parents could have seven years to see whether their child’s leg heals and grows properly.

Ziotas said a similar situation can arise with concussions. He said toddlers who suffer blows to the head are too young to be tested for a mild traumatic brain injury. But sometimes when a child starts school, parents find out their child has cognitive problems as a result of the earlier accident. By that time, he said, it’s too late to sue.

The CTLA argues that this legislation actually would affect only a small number of potential litigants, but that it would provide vital protection for parents and children who sustain serious injuries that can’t be immediately diagnosed. As it stands, said Ziotas, “all you’re doing is closing the courthouse … to the people the courthouse should be open to the most: injured children.”

Christian Nolan can be contacted at CNolan@alm.com.

Originally appeared in print as Bill Would Affect Personal Injury Cases Involving Minors.

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