Prescriptive period for medical negligence

We hear of medical malpractice. In our jurisdiction, however, there is no specific medical malpractice law to hold an erring physician liable for damages.

In the Philippines, either a criminal or a civil case or both are instituted. Invariably, the civil case is one for negligence which in legal parlance is called tort or quasi-delict. Here, the complaint must allege that the physician was remiss in his duty, which resulted in injury to the complainant. Others sue under breach of contract. In this case, the complaint must allege the contractual obligation of the doctor which he breached; causing damage to the patient. These are two distinct and separate actions. As such, they have different prescriptive periods. Under tort, the action must be filed within four years of the negligent act. For breach of contract, it can either be six or ten years, depending on which provisions of the law are invoked.

I came across an interesting case that was promulgated by the Supreme Court on 15 February 2022. It involves the alleged negligence of medical practitioners. The case does not delve into whether the doctors were negligent. Rather, it deals with prescription — whether the patient could still hold the physicians liable at the time he instituted the complaint.

In Paolo Anthony de Jesus vs. Dr. Romeo F. Uyloan et al. (G.R. 234851), the petitioner on 15 September 2010 underwent a cholecystectomy to remove his gallstones. During the procedure, the doctors shifted from a laparoscopic to an open surgery, without the patient’s prior consent. On 19 September 2010, he was discharged supposedly in good condition and in a recovered state. He, however, experienced vomiting, suffered unbearable pain in his abdomen, and had a continuous bile leak in his colostomy bag. When he consulted the doctor who did the procedure, the latter said that it was normal. Discontented, he went to another hospital for several tests. It was discovered that something allegedly went awry in the procedure. Thus, he had to undergo another operation to rectify the error in the first.

On 10 November 2015, or five years after the procedure, the patient filed a complaint against the two doctors who performed the cholecystectomy and the hospital. Instead of filing their answer, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss alleging, among others, a prescription. They argued that the complaint is based on tort. Thus, it should have been filed within four years from 15 September 2010. The trial court denied the motion. One doctor appealed to the appellate court. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. It dismissed the complaint on the ground of prescription.

The patient went to the Supreme Court arguing contractual breach. To this issue, the Supreme Court said, “Medical malpractice is a particular form of negligence which consists in the failure of a physician or surgeon to apply to his practice of medicine that degree of care and skill which is ordinarily employed by the profession generally, under similar conditions, and in like surrounding circumstances. To pursue such a claim, a patient must prove that the physician or surgeon either failed to do something which a reasonably prudent physician or surgeon would have done, or that he or she did something that a reasonably prudent physician or surgeon would not have done and that the failure or action caused injury to the patient.

There are thus four elements involved in medical negligence cases, namely: duty, breach, injury, and proximate causation. Thus, where the complaint contains averments of the foregoing elements and the defendant doctor failed to observe such degree of care which caused damage or harm to the plaintiff patient, the cause of action is one for medical negligence under the law on torts rather than contract.

The above complaint indeed states a categorical declaration of the case being brought based on a ‘medical contract between the Plaintiffs and Defendants Uyloan and Ojeda’ under the statement of a cause of action against the doctors. However, the rest of the allegations and arguments unmistakably show that the cause of action is premised upon the law and jurisprudence on damages in general and medical negligence under the Civil Code provisions on quasi-delict. Clearly, the cause of action is one for medical negligence premised on the ‘breach of [the defendant doctors’] professional duties of skill and care, or their improper performance by a physician surgeon, whereby the plaintiff suffered injury and damages.

Rather, it deals with prescription – whether the patient could still hold the physicians liable at the time he instituted the complaint.

From the recitals of the complaint, the petitioner’s cause of action accrued on 15 September 2010, the day Dr. Uyloan and Dr. Ojeda operated on his gallbladder. Clearly, the filing of the case against the physicians on 10 November 2015 is already barred by prescription.”

The facts and citations are from the case mentioned above.

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