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Medical malpractice case brought against U.S. Government doctor is reinstated on appeal

Delma Amburgey sued the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, arguing that her husband's death was caused by his VA doctor's negligence.  The VA doctor, Mahmood Alam, M.D., recommended a CT scan with IV contrast dye to investigate Amburgey's pneumonia, even though Amburgey had suffered an allergic reaction to radiological dye and nearly died the previous year.

After Amburgey's death, Alam told his family that Jerry died of "natural causes," that he suspected lung cancer and an aspirated clot, and that no autopsy would be necessary or useful.  The County Coroner disagreed with this analysis and ordered an autopsy:  ultimately, he attributed the death to an allergic reaction to the contrast dye.

The family filed a FTCA complaint one day before the two-year anniversary of the death.  The federal government asked that the claim be dismissed because it was not "received" within two years of the claim accruing, and the trial court agreed.  On appeal, the widow argued that her claim did not "accrue" until she received the autopsy report, weeks after the death, confirming the cause of death.

The appellate judges ruled that the widow, Delma, did not need to know precisely what caused her husband's death in order for her claim to accrue, but that the claim did not accrue until she knew enough to "alert a reasonable person to the possibility of physician-caused harm." On that basis, the family's death claim did not accrue on the date of death:  it accrued when they received information that brought into question the explanation of the doctor-defendant. This case would probably have been decided differently under Michigan activist Justices' current highly political approach:  recent cases suggest that if a Michigan patient had any suspicion of malpractice the time limit would run, regardless of representations made by the physician or the over-all circumstances of the event.

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