New Supreme Court Decision Extends Parents' Claims until Injured Child Turns 18

Marshall M. Raucci

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently issued a landmark decision that gives the parents of an injured child a second chance to file their medical malpractice claims if they failed to do so within the child’s first three years. The decision changes how the statute of limitations works, and opens the door to reviving some parental “loss of society and companionship” claims.

In its decision, filed on May 19, 2015, the Supreme Court gave new meaning to Rhode Island’s statute of limitations for the medical malpractice claims of minors, General Laws 1956 § 9-1-14.1(1). See Jean Ho-Rath et al. v. Rhode Island Hospital et al., Nos. 12-208, 12-211. The statute, which requires that malpractice claims be filed within three (3) years from the time of the alleged malpractice, also provided that: “One who is under disability by reason of age * * * and on whose behalf no action is brought within the period of three (3) years from the time of the occurrence of the incident, shall bring the action within three (3) years from the removal of the disability.”

In the Ho-Rath case, the parents filed a medical malpractice suit in 2010 on behalf of their minor daughter, Yendee, who was born in 1998 with a genetic disorder. The plaintiffs brought suit on behalf of Yendee, as well as themselves, for negligence in the diagnosis and treatment relating to Yendee’s genetic disorder. The defendants then filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred because they were filed after the 3 year statute of limitations. The Superior Court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss and reserved Yendee’s right to file a future suit on her own behalf upon reaching the age of 18.

The plaintiffs appealed, and the Supreme Court held that § 9-1-14.1(1) provides a minor plaintiff in a medical malpractice action with two options. First, the minor’s parent or guardian may file suit on the minor’s behalf within three years of the malpractice or the reasonable discovery of it. Alternatively, if the minor’s parent or guardian fails to file suit on the minor’s behalf within those three years, then the minor may file suit on his or her own behalf, but not until he or she reaches the age of 18. Upon reaching the age of 18, he or she has three years within which to file the action.

The Supreme Court further held that a parent’s claim for the damage to the relationship because of the injury should be extended alongside the minor’s claim from which it derives—meaning that, if no suit is filed on behalf of the minor within three years of the malpractice, the parents still have the option to file their claims within the three-year limitations period that opens for the minor upon reaching the age of 18. Thus, the Ho-Rath parents were not prevented from filing their derivative claims in a future suit brought by Yendee after she attains the age of 18.

The Supreme Court’s holding is significant because it essentially created a second chance for parents to pursue claims related to the injuries of a child. Prior to this holding, a parent could only file their claims within the first 3 years after their child’s birth. If they did not file their claims within that time, the parents were forever barred from doing so. Now, there is another way for parents to recover based on the injuries of their children.

If your child was injured through medical malpractice related to any neonatal care or labor and delivery, we invite you to contact us. In light of the new Supreme Court decision, there are now more options for you to pursue your claims.