Wallace twice returned to Dr. Horvath because she was experiencing continued pain and because the skin on her arm was blistering and peeling. Both times the doctor removed the cast, treated the skin and put on a new cast. In mid-January, Ms. Wallace again went to Chestnut Hill Hospital after her arm began to emit an unusual odor. She did not receive any treatment on this occasion, however, because Dr. Horvath was unavailable and the doctor on duty told her that he could not treat Dr. Horvath's patients.
On January 22, 1974, Ms. Wallace visited her family physician in Maine. After examining the arm, he referred her to a specialist. The specialist found that the metal plate was floating free in her arm and that gangrene had developed; he hospitalized Ms. Wallace in early February, 1974, for extended treatment. After the hospital discharged Ms. Wallace on March 29, 1974, she learned that the specialist believed that Dr. Horvath had given her improper treatment.
Ms. Wallace filed a malpractice action against Dr. Horvath and the Chestnut Hill Hospital in Pennsylvania state court on March 24, 1976. The trial judge granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the ground that the two-year statute of limitations had expired. The plaintiff appealed the entry of judgment against her.
After determining that Ms. Wallace reasonably should have discovered her injury prior to March 24, 1974, the Superior Court affirmed. Wallace v. Horvath, supra, c -- - Pa.Super. at -- -, 423 A.2d 1047. In reaching its decision, the appellate court noted that Ms. Wallace had experienced pain and skin problems involving the broken arm throughout January of 1974 and that she had learned in early February of 1974 that the surgical plate was loose and that gangrene had developed. Id. By failing to mention during its analysis the specialist's opinion of Dr. Horvath's treatment and by holding that the limitations period began to run before Ms. Wallace learned of that opinion, the Superior Court implicitly declined to attach any significance to the moment when Ms. Wallace reasonably should have realized that she had a cause of action against Dr. Horvath and the hospital. In a concurring opinion, Judge Brosky explicitly denied that the specialist's opinion had any significance, concluding that "it was not her knowledge that she had a cause of action, but rather her awareness that she had suffered an injury, that caused the statute of limitations to begin to run." Wallace v. Horvath, supra, concurring op., at -- -, 423 A.2d 1047.
The discovery rule is a compromise that balances society's interest in giving a diligent plaintiff his day in court with society's interest in preventing prejudice to defendants and the waste of judicial resources through the litigation of stale claims. The courts of Pennsylvania could have tipped the balance strongly in favor of the diligent plaintiff by holding that the limitations period would not begin to run until the time when the plaintiff reasonably should know that he has a cause of action; but the courts have not so held. Instead, their decisions recognize a limitations period that begins to run when the plaintiff discovers his injury, the operative cause of that injury and the causative relationship between the injury and the operative conduct.
Under prevailing Pennsylvania law, the two-year statute of limitations started to run in the present case when Mr. Bosworth learned that Stephanie had cerebral palsy, that the cerebral palsy resulted from oxygen deprivation during the first four minutes following delivery, and that several occurrences could have caused this oxygen deprivation. Although Mr. Bosworth had acquired all of this information within a year of Stephanie's birth, he did not initiate suit against Dr. Plummer and Latrobe Hospital until six years and seven months after her birth. We must hold that the plaintiffs' claims are time-barred.