Sometimes it seems as if New York City pays out a lot of money, on a regular basis, in lawsuit recoveries. And recent headlines, such as this one , concerning the approximately $140 million dollars the City is expected to pay to injured firefighters, continue to keep that idea alive.
But allow me to share with you the manner in which the City conducts itself in an extremely fiscally conservative way–though patient advocates might call it something less flattering. It has to do with limitations of time, and the public's lack of awareness of the limitations. Medical consumers must be particularly aware of time limitations when they are treated by hospitals, and other healthcare facilities, that are part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation , or HHC, such as Jacobi Medical Center, or Bellevue Hospital Center. If you are injured in a non-HHC hospital in New York City, or a facility anywhere else in the state that is not run by a municipality, the time limit to bring a lawsuit is two years and six months from the time of the malpractice. (If you want to look it up, go to New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, Section 214-a.) But if you are the victim of medical malpractice in a New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation Hospital, you must act within 90 days of the malpractice, by filing a Notice of Claim with HHC, or you are, with certain exceptions, forever barred from seeking compensation, no matter how serious the error and the resulting injury. And if the claim is not resolved, and it becomes necessary to file a lawsuit, that must be done within one year and 90 days from the malpractice. (Again, for the curious, see New York General Municipal Law, Sections 50-e and 50-i.)
Chances are good that unless you work in hospital risk management, or are a lawyer involved in prosecuting or defending medical malpractice actions, this news comes as a surprise. And that's exactly how New York City wants it. The less you know about your rights as a patient injured by medical malpractice, the better for the City, and for its fiscal health. Because if you don't know about the 90-day time limit, you have a very good chance of missing it, which means that New York City gets to dodge another bullet. Let's be realistic. If you have been unlucky enough to have become the victim of a life-altering medical mistake, your focus, and that of your friends and family, is going to be on getting better, and getting home from the hospital, and perhaps a rehab facility, as soon as possible. It may not dawn on you, or those close to you, that your poor outcome, or your “complication,” could have been the result of a doctor or nurse's error, until long after you are home. And then it's too late.
You've probably noticed that hospitals, including City hospitals, have lots of helpful signage and pamphlets in view of, and available to, all patients: blurbs on “patient rights”; disinfection procedures; discharge instructions about symptoms that warrant returning to the hospital, or at least calling your doctor; “consent” forms documenting information that has been explained to you before a procedure. But one thing you never see is a sign alerting you to how little time you have to file a Notice of Claim if the hospital screws up. And I've got a pretty good hunch that such signs won't be in place any time soon. When you think about that institutional level of information withholding, you can begin to see just how much New York City actually saves every year by doing its best to keep its hospital patients in the dark about their rights as medical malpractice victims. Perhaps this is all part of the glorious “tort reform” our politicians have been promising us.