Breast Cancer Statute of Limitations Case in Iowa

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed Scott County District Court Judge David H. Sivright, Jr.’s summary judgment ruling in a failure to diagnose breast cancer case, rejecting malpractice defense lawyer claims that Plaintiff should have known of her injury, for purposes of the statute of limitations, just because a doctor made her aware that her breast was not normal.

Facts of Warhank

Typical breast cancer story.  The plaintiff finds a palpable mass in her left breast. She goes to the doctor.  She gets a referral for a bilateral mammogram.

The radiologist read the mammogram and had some concerns regarding the right breast and ordered spot films of the right breast. But a spot compression was taken only her right breast.  She was correctly concerned they had the wrong breast.

Although she knew something may be amiss, the Plaintiff – according to the facts alleged in her medical malpractice lawsuit – was assured that she did not have to worry about the lump. According to the malpractice lawsuit, Plaintiff, Ms. Rock, noticed a lump in her left breast in May 2002 and called her doctor to have it examined. She was referred to the Center for Breast Health for a bilateral mammogram. During a follow-up appointment, the plaintiff said the doctor told her the mammogram was normal and “not to worry about the lump.”

The trial court judge said it was a simple case. Iowa Code § 614.1(9) provides that a medical malpractice claim must be brought “within two years after the date on which the claimant knew, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known, or received notice in writing of the existence of, the injury or death for which damages are sought in the action, whichever of the dates occurs first…”   Because she was concerned a mistake was made, the trial judge found the statute of limitations had passed.

Iowa Supreme Court

The Iowa Supreme Court held that the plaintiff could not have known and would not have known of her cancer or that her breast cancer was misdiagnosed until she was actually diagnosed with cancer.

This makes sense, right?  A lump in the breast alone does not put the patient on notice that she has breast cancer when a doctor is telling her she is fine.  In this case, the medical records are clear that the belief is that the lump is benign and is not a cause of concern. So the court’s reasoning is that this woman was not on notice of the need to bring a claim until the day she was diagnosed with cancer.  While the misdiagnosis might have occurred earlier, the statute of limitations in Iowa and most states require that the plaintiff know or have reason to know of the tort.  You don’t know you have been misdiagnosed until you are given a diagnosis.

Congratulations to Plaintiff’s medical malpractice lawyers Robert Gallagher and David Millage in Davenport, Iowa, who stayed with this case through adverse rulings both at trial and before the Iowa Court of Appeals.

You can find the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion here.

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