United States v. Kubrick
444 U.S. 111 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111 (1979)

United States v. Kubrick

No. 78-1014

Argued October 3, 1979

Decided November 28, 1979

444 U.S. 111

Syllabus

A provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), bars any tort claim against the United States unless it is presented in writing to the appropriate federal agency "within two years after such claim accrues." In 1968, several weeks after having an infected leg treated with neomycin (an antibiotic) at a Veterans' Administration (VA) hospital, respondent suffered a hearing loss, and in January, 1969, was informed by a private physician that it was highly possible that the hearing loss was the result of the neomycin treatment. Subsequently, in the course of respondent's unsuccessful administrative appeal from the VA's denial of his claim for certain veterans' benefits based on the allegation that the neomycin treatment had caused his deafness, another private physician, in June, 1971, told respondent that the neomycin had caused his injury and should not have been administered. In 1972, respondent filed suit under the FTCA, alleging that he had been injured by negligent treatment at the VA hospital. The District Court rendered judgment for respondent, rejecting the Government's defense that respondent's claim was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations because it had accrued in January, 1969, when respondent first learned that his hearing loss had probably resulted from the neomycin, and holding that respondent had no reason to suspect negligence until his conversation with the second physician in June, 1971, less than two years before the action was commenced. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, if a medical malpractice claim does not accrue until a plaintiff is aware of his injury and its cause, neither should it accrue until he knows or should suspect that the doctor who caused the injury was legally blameworthy, and that, here, the limitations period was not triggered until the second physician indicated, in June, 1971, that the neomycin treatment had been improper.

Held: A claim accrues within the meaning of § 2401(b) when the plaintiff knows both the existence and the cause of his injury, and not at a later time when he also knows that the acts inflicting the injury may constitute medical malpractice. Hence, respondent's claim accrued in

Page 444 U. S. 112

January, 1969, when he was aware of his injury and its probable cause, and thus was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations. Pp. 444 U. S. 117-125.

(a) Section 2401(b) is the balance struck by Congress in the context of tort claims against the Government, and should not be construed so as to defeat its purpose of encouraging the prompt presentation of claims. Moreover, § 2401(b), being a condition of the FTCA's waiver of the United States' immunity from suit, should not be construed to extend such waiver beyond that which Congress intended. Pp. 444 U. S. 117-118.

(b) There is nothing in the FTCA's language or legislative history that provides a substantial basis for the Court of Appeals' construction of § 2401(b). Nor did the prevailing case law at the time the FTCA was passed lend support to the notion that tort claims in general or malpractice claims in particular do not accrue until a plaintiff learns that his injury was negligently inflicted. Pp. 444 U. S. 119-120.

(c) For statute of limitations purposes, a plaintiff's ignorance of his legal rights and his ignorance of the fact of his injury or its cause should not receive equal treatment. P. 444 U. S. 122.

(d) A plaintiff such as respondent, armed with the facts about the harm done to him, can protect himself by seeking advice in the medical and legal community, and to excuse him from promptly doing so by postponing the accrual of his claim would undermine the purpose of the limitations statute. Whether or not he is competently advised, or even whether he is advised, the putative malpractice plaintiff must determine within the period of limitations whether to sue or not, which is precisely the judgment that other tort plaintiffs must make. Pp. 444 U. S. 123-124.

581 F.2d 1092, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 444 U. S. 125.

Page 444 U. S. 113

Primary Holding
The statute of limitations starts running in a tort claim against the federal government when a plaintiff should have discovered that the injury was the result of negligence, not when the plaintiff actually discovered it.
Facts
Kubrick suffered from a ringing sensation in his ears and moderate hearing loss after he had received treatment at a VA hospital for an infection of his right femur, which was irrigated with neomycin. Ear specialists told Kubrick that his hearing loss likely resulted from the neomycin treatment, and he was diagnosed with bilateral nerve deafness. As a result, he sought an increase in his disability benefits, but the VA denied it and its Board of Appeals rejected the appeal. Kubrick then brought an action under the Federal Tort Claims Act, based on negligence in the form of medical malpractice. He prevailed in the lower court and received damages, but the government argued that he had not timely filed his claim.

Opinions

Majority

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

A two-year statute of limitations applies to these claims, and it started at the time that the plaintiff discovered his harm, not when he found out that it might have been malpractice. Statutes of limitations serve the important purpose of avoiding situations in which the courts are unable to determine the truth because of lost documents and other evidence or dwindling memories. Plaintiffs have the responsibility of protecting their rights by seeking advice on conduct that might have been malpractice. There is no reason to excuse them from this obligation.

Dissent

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall

Most ordinary people do not immediately think that a less than optimal result from an operation suggests medical malpractice. Even if the plaintiff knew the cause of the injury, he could not reasonably have assumed that it was caused by negligence. He acted diligently in investigating the symptoms and their cause.

Case Commentary

This case interpreted a section of the Federal Tort Claims Act that limits the liability of the U.S. government. It is important to note that the reasonable discovery element of the statute refers to discovery of the situation caused by the medical procedure, not the discovery that the procedure was negligently performed.

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