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Duty to Investigate and the Statute of Limitations Discovery Rule

Brizak v. Needle  239 N.J. Super. 415 (App. Div. 1990)

Student Contributor: Maninder (Meena) Saini

NJ Underlying  Medical Malpractice Action

Facts: Plaintiff-client commenced a malpractice lawsuit against defendant-attorney, alleging the defendant was negligent by failing to file a medical malpractice claim before the expiration of the statute of limitations (“SOL”). The defendant argued that the SOL did not start until there was expert opinion recognizing that medical malpractice had occurred. The facts are as followed: In 1981, plaintiff sustained an arm injury and was treated by Dr. Shafi. Instead of conducting surgery, the doctor simply placed her arm in a hanging cast. On December 5, 1983, plaintiff retained defendant to pursue an action against Dr. Shafi because she was still suffering from the affects of her arm injury. In May 1984, the defendant requested a copy of the hospital records. Next, in March 1985, the defendant obtained an opinion from a radiologist who advised defendant that no malpractice transpired. In June 1987, defendant obtained another medical expert opinion that found that malpractice had occurred.

Issue: When does the “discovery” rule apply in any given case?

Rule: The “discovery rule” tolls the statute of limitations when one “is either unaware that he has sustained an injury, or although aware that an injury has occurred, he does not know that it is, or may be, attributable to the fault of another.” When one knows or has reason to know of the injury, the statute of limitations starts to run.

Issue: Whether an attorney has the duty to investigate the basis of their client’s claim?

Rule: An attorney must undertake a reasonable diligent investigation to determine if there is a reasonable basis for commencing an action.

D]efendant’s clearly erroneous advice to plaintiff that she need not be concerned about the time limitations until she found a physician to support her claim was itself a sufficient basis for linking his negligence to her failure to commence a timely action against the doctor.

The SOL started in December 1983 when the plaintiff had suspicion of the malpractice and retained a lawyer.

Lesson: The defendant was not diligent in his investigation of medical malpractice. An attorney has a duty to take any steps reasonably necessary to properly handle the case, which includes the duty to investigate and to file any action necessary for recovery within the applicable time period.

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Posted in: Discovery Rule, Duties: Investigate, New Jersey, Statute of Limitations, Torts/Personal Injury