Statutes of Limitations Are Important, But Exceptions May Apply

Statutes of Limitations Are Important, But Exceptions May Apply The statute of limitations for filing a personal injury claim isn’t always clear. While the standard state or District of Columbia statute of limitations is the starting point, there may be reasons why the time you need to file your claim (so that it’s not forever barred) is less than the personal injury statute states. For example, it’s generally required that if you have a claim against the government such as the local Department of Transportation, you need to notify the government within a much shorter time frame.

But sometimes the statutes can be a bit murky. A recent California accident case shows why the best course of action if you’re involved in any type of collision is to contact experienced car accident lawyers immediately.

A collision between an ambulance driver and a non-medical driver

The case of Gutierrez v. Tostado (decided by California’s appellate court in 2023) raised the question of what statute of limitations applies: the State’s Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act’s (MICRA) one-year statute of limitations or its personal injury two-year statute of limitations. In this case, a driver (the defendant Tostado) of an ambulance rear-ended another driver (the plaintiff Gutierrez) while the defendant was transporting a patient. Gutierrez was forced to stop. Tostado then rear-ended Gutierrez.

When the accident occurred, Tostado was working as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for a co-defendant Pro-Transport-1, LLC. Tostado was transporting a patient from one medical facility to another medical facility. While Tostado was driving, another person was helping the patient in the back of the ambulance. Tostado was not speeding or driving quickly when the rear-end collision occurred.

Gutierrez began treatment with a chiropractor within 10 days of the accident. Whiplash and other soft tissue injuries are common rear-end accident symptoms.

Gutierrez filed his personal injury claim nearly two years after the accident – within the personal injury statute of limitations but outside the MICRA statute of limitations. The trial court granted the defense motion that the case was beyond the MICRA statute of limitations and that the MICRA statute controlled the timeline for filing. Gutierrez then appealed that trial court’s ruling.

Gutierrez argued that the general personal injury statute of limitations should control, not the MICRA statute of limitations, because Gutierrez was not receiving professional medical services. Gutierrez also argued that “the duty that Tostado violated by crashing into his car was a duty of care generally owed to the public, not a professional duty owed by a medical provider to a patient.” Both the plaintiff and the defendants agree that the patient that Tostado was transporting was receiving medical care.

The appellate court found that it was not material that the victim Gutierrez was not a patient. The appellate court held that the one-year statute of limitations controlled because the defendant Tostado was performing a critical healthcare function – transporting a patient by ambulance.

The appellate court based its ruling on a review of why MICRA was enacted (mainly to reduce medical malpractice liability costs) and prior relevant case law. In the case under review, the driver was providing a key medical service even though he was not directly tending to the patient – the driver’s operation of the vehicle enabled the other EMT to provide medical care.

The California Appellate Court ruled as follows:

“[We] conclude that MICRA is not limited to suits by patients or to recipients of medical services as long as the plaintiff is injured due to negligence in the rendering of professional services and his injuries were foreseeable. The fact that Tostado was not driving quickly here or that Gutierrez was in a separate vehicle rather than in the ambulance does not change the analysis or our conclusion that third parties injured in a collision with an ambulance when it is rendering medical care are subject to MICRA.”

The appellate court’s decision was not unanimous. A dissenting judge ruled that the general two-year statute should apply because Gutierrez did not seem to have any way of knowing that the ambulance driver was on duty and helping a patient – and thus no way of knowing that MICRA should apply.

Can you sue an ambulance driver for a car accident in Washington, DC?

You can – but you may run into the same type of complication. If the driver is employed by a private company, then you can file a claim against that driver and/or the company. Generally, you have three years to do this. But if that driver who caused your car accident works for the District of Columbia, then your time frame is much different, as is the type of claim you can file.

The California case confirms that delays in contacting an experienced car accident lawyer can affect the right of a victim to file a personal injury (or wrongful death) claim. There are also practical reasons why victims should seek legal help as soon as possible. It’s best to examine the accident site, the damaged vehicles, the people involved in the accident, and any witnesses before any changes are made to the site, repairs are made to the vehicle, and the memories of the people involved fade. Prompt action can also help ensure that victims are seeing the doctors and health providers who can best help them and so that a lawyer can explain what insurance options apply.

If you’ve been involved in any type of car accident, please contact Paulson & Nace, PLLC through this contact form or by calling our office.