Cohen: For sake of patients, change NY's malpractice law
Hospitals in our state just got a bad report card. In new rankings of patient safety, New York is a lousy 32nd. To make matters worse, the state's antiquated laws prevent some of those hurt or even killed by hospital mistakes from ever having their day in court.
The injustice of New York law was painfully illustrated in the case of 41-year-old Brooklyn mother Lavern Wilkinson.
When Wilkinson went to Kings County Hospital in 2010 with chest pains, an X-ray showed a suspicious nodule in her lung. But no one acted on the findings, and no one told Wilkinson.
Two years after she was sent home with advice to take Motrin, Wilkinson's body was wracked by cancer. It was too late to save her life.
It was also too late for Wilkinson to take the hospital to court for negligence, even though it admitted a mistake had been made. Under New York's statute of limitations, the clock starts running when the medical error is made, not when the patient learns of it, and it had expired in Wilkinson's case.
Wilkinson died in March, leaving a 15-year-old daughter who is mentally disabled and autistic. Malpractice experts estimate that a court award would have brought enough to ensure her daughter was cared for. Instead, she had to accept a payment for far less than her child's lifelong care will cost.
Unfortunately, hospital errors are all too common. One in four American patients suffers harm from a medical mistake during hospitalization. The new rankings by the Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit hospital safety organization, shows many New York hospitals are below the national average of patient safety.
Forty-four other states have wisely decided that the statute of limitations should begin at the time a medical error is discovered. If Wilkinson had lived almost anywhere else besides New York, her daughter's care would likely be assured.
It's up to Albany to change this unjust law and give victims a better shot at justice. Assemb. Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn) and Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) have proposed "Lavern's Law," which would start the statute of limitations window for certain kinds of medical malpractice at the point of the harm's discovery. Lavern Wilkinson -- and all patients -- deserve better.
Bob Cohen is policy director of Citizen Action of New York, which advocates for racial, social, economic and environmental justice.