ISSUE OF THE CASE
When a patient waited 3-and-a-half years to initiate a lawsuit against a pharmacy for a dispensing error, was that a timely filing under the relevant state law? Which should apply, the 2-year statute of limitations applicable to a claim of professional negligence or the 4-year time limit applicable to a claim for general negligence?

FACTS OF THE CASE
A patient in a southern state presented a prescription at a pharmacy requesting dispensing of ciprofloxacin 500 mg with the directions to take 1 dosage unit twice per day. For some reason, the medication was mislabeled to indicate the patient should take 2 tablets 4 times per day. The prescription was refilled once with the erroneous directions used again. This mishap led to the patient being hospitalized for treatment of overdose of the medication.

The dispensing or labeling error had occurred during February 2010, but the error at the pharmacy was not discovered until July of that year, during a subsequent visit with the physician. In February 2014, the lawsuit was filed in US District Court. That delay prompted the defendant national pharmacy chain to move for dismissal of the lawsuit for failure to file it in a timely manner.

THE COURT’S RULING
The pharmacy chain’s motion for dismissal of the lawsuit was granted.

THE COURT’S REASONING
The court first pointed out that arguing the matter should be dismissed due to delay in filing the lawsuit, which is an affirmative defense, thus resulting in the burden of proof resting with the defendant. Therefore, if the firm wanted out of the suit, it had to advance arguments that dismissal was appropriate. This was not a normal or customary matter in which the burden of proof rested with the plaintiff.

There were 2 possible approaches for the federal court to use when applying the law of the state where the matter arose. The first focused on a state statute specifying that an action seeking to recover damages for professional malpractice, other than medical malpractice, must be brought within 2 years. The clock starts to run on such a claim on the date the potential for a lawsuit is discovered or should have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.

In the second approach, the claim is not based on alleged professional negligence, but rather, on ordinary negligence. In such an instance, the relevant statute of limitations is 4 years.

The court identified 1 case as precedent— a case with a factual basis very similar to the one presented here. In that earlier case, the state appellate court said:

“It is not disputed in this case that but for the alleged negligence of the [pharmacy chain’s] pharmacist there would have been no error in the prescribed dosage and [the patients] would have no legal cause of action under any legal theory.”

The state court ruled in its earlier decision that a claim of negligence by a professional meant that the shorter statute of limitations used with claims of professional negligence was the appropriate standard to be applied.

The plaintiff in the case under consideration here cited 2 earlier state court decisions that he felt supported his position that the longer, 4-year statute should apply. Those cases both dealt with the issue of whether the provisions in the state’s Medical Malpractice Reform Act applied to lawsuits against pharmacists and pharmacies. The federal court deciding the pharmacy chain’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit ruled that those 2 earlier cases did not address issues related to statute of limitations, so they had no value as precedent.

The court emphasized, when concluding, that “Both of plaintiff’s claims in the instant matter are based on the alleged negligence of the defendant’s pharmacist, and absent such negligence the plaintiff would not have a cause of action under any legal theory.” This led the judge to the conclusion that the 2-year statute of limitation was the one to use. Applying that standard, he ruled that the plaintiff had delayed too long—3-and a-half-years—in filing the action, and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Dismissal with prejudice means the matter is fully concluded: the plaintiff cannot modify the filings in order to return.

Statutes of limitations are legislatively imposed time limits within which a lawsuit must be commenced. One of the principal goals of such legislative limits is to get matters into court on a timely basis, while individuals’ memories are fresh. In negligence claims, there often is an element of the suit that turns on “who said what to whom and when,” so documentation may not be available to commemorate the exchange.


Dr. Fink is a professor of pharmacy law and policy and the Kentucky Pharmacists Association Endowed Professor of Leadership at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy, Lexington.