The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (“Federal Appellate Court”) held in its opinion dated August 24, 2021: “The statute of limitations began to run only when Ms. Stark should have realized that her mesh-related complications might have been wrongfully caused by another person. As a general rule, the failure of a medical procedure or product to cure a patient does not necessarily signal that anyone acted wrongfully, particularly when the patient experiences known complications that do not necessarily result from tortious actions. In addition here, plaintiff’s medical history included Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which two of her doctors told her could explain her continued problems. The combination of that general principle and plaintiff’s specific circumstances could allow a reasonable jury to decide that this suit was timely.”
The Underlying Facts
Plaintiff Patricia Stark had surgery in 2007 to implant a pelvic mesh device. The surgery was not successful, and she had follow-up surgeries that also were not successful. In 2018, she learned for the first time that her problems with the pelvic mesh device might have resulted from a defect in the product itself. She consulted a lawyer and later that year filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson and Ethicon, Inc. The district court concluded that Ms. Stark should have realized much earlier that the product might have been defective. The district court granted summary judgment based on the two-year statute of limitations. The Federal Appellate court reversed.
Illinois Statute Of Limitations
In general, under Illinois law, the statute of limitations clock begins to run when facts exist that would authorize the bringing of a cause of action. Illinois also applies the discovery rule, so that the statute of limitations clock does not start running until the injured party knows or reasonably should have known both that she was injured and that her injury was wrongfully caused by another person.
“Wrongfully caused” refers to when the injured party learns that her injury may stem from another’s negligence rather than natural causes, which is a question of fact that is often disputed. When there is a single, clear answer to be drawn from the undisputed facts in the record, however, the court may determine the issue as a matter of law.
The district court determined that, at the latest, Ms. Stark should have known in November 2015 that her mesh-related injuries might have been wrongfully caused, which was when Dr. Valaitis tried but failed to remove remnants of eroded mesh from the TVT-O sling from her urethra. The Federal Appellate Court stated, “It is possible that mesh erosion did not strike Ms. Stark or her physicians as a potential product defect because erosion was a known risk of pelvic mesh implantation. The FDA had approved the use of mesh implants knowing that they are not 100 percent effective. The fact that a known complication or failure occurs could reasonably be interpreted as a sign that such product or procedure-related failures could occur without anyone acting wrongfully … Although Ms. Stark was told that the mesh was eroding, she was never told that the mesh was or even might be defective. Quite the opposite. Dr. Elser implanted a second mesh sling to correct matters after the first one appeared to be eroding … The fact that erosion was a known complication could reasonably be taken to mean that erosion could occur without the product being defective, especially when Dr. Roth and Dr. Elser told Ms. Stark that EDS might make her more prone to mesh erosion … Ultimately, then, a jury could reasonably infer that Ms. Stark actually discovered the potentially wrongful cause of her injuries less than two years before filing suit, when she first discussed pelvic mesh litigation with her friend, Ms. Enright, in March 2018, and that she did not have sufficient reason to suspect that wrongful cause any earlier … Ms. Stark—like all other patients—should not be penalized for trusting her physicians’ advice and not suspecting too quickly that her poor medical outcome was caused by a negligent actor … When Ms. Stark reasonably knew or should have known that her mesh-related complications might have been caused wrongfully is not self-evident. That lack of a single, clear answer is precisely why the statute of limitations questions here cannot be resolved on summary judgment.”
Source Stark v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 20-1837.
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