United States v. Kubrick, No. 78-1014

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWHITE
Citation62 L.Ed.2d 259,100 S.Ct. 352,444 U.S. 111
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. William A. KUBRICK
Docket NumberNo. 78-1014
Decision Date28 November 1979

444 U.S. 111
100 S.Ct. 352
62 L.Ed.2d 259
UNITED STATES, Petitioner,

v.

William A. KUBRICK.

No. 78-1014.
Argued Oct. 3, 1979.
Decided Nov. 28, 1979.
Syllabus

A provision of the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), bars any tort claim against the United States unless it is presented in writing to the appropriate federal agency "within two years after such claim accrues." In 1968, several weeks after having an infected leg treated with neomycin (an antibiotic) at a Veterans' Administration (VA) hospital, respondent suffered a hearing loss, and in January 1969 was informed by a private physician that it was highly possible that the hearing loss was the result of the neomycin treatment. Subsequently, in the course of respondent's unsuccessful administrative appeal from the VA's denial of his claim for certain veterans' benefits based on the allegation that the neomycin treatment had caused his deafness, another private physician in June 1971 told respondent that the neomycin had caused his injury and should not have been administered. In 1972, respondent filed suit under the FTCA, alleging that he had been injured by negligent treatment at the VA hospital. The District Court rendered judgment for respondent, rejecting the Government's defense that respondent's claim was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations because it had accrued in January 1969, when respondent first learned that his hearing loss had probably resulted from the neomycin, and holding that respondent had no reason to suspect negligence until his conversation with the second physician in June 1971, less than two years before the action was commenced. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that if a medical malpractice claim does not accrue until a plaintiff is aware of his injury and its cause, neither should it accrue until he knows or should suspect that the doctor who caused the injury was legally blameworthy, and that here the limitations period was not triggered until the second physician indicated in June 1971 that the neomycin treatment had been improper.

Held: A claim accrues within the meaning of § 2401(b) when the plaintiff knows both the existence and the cause of his injury, and not at a later time when he also knows that the acts inflicting the injury may constitute medical malpractice. Hence, respondent's claim accrued in

Page 112

January 1969 when he was aware of his injury and its probable cause, and thus was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations. Pp. 117-125.

(a) Section 2401(b) is the balance struck by Congress in the context of tort claims against the Government, and should not be construed so as to defeat its purpose of encouraging the prompt presentation of claims. Moreover, § 2401(b), being a condition of the FTCA's waiver of the United States' immunity from suit, should not be construed to extend such waiver beyond that which Congress intended. Pp. 117-118.

(b) There is nothing in the FTCA's language or legislative history that provides a substantial basis for the Court of Appeals' construction of § 2401(b). Nor did the prevailing case law at the time the FTCA was passed lend support to the notion that tort claims in general or malpractice claims in particular do not accrue until a plaintiff learns that his injury was negligently inflicted. Pp. 119-120.

(c) For statute of limitations purposes, a plaintiff's ignorance of his legal rights and his ignorance of the fact of his injury or its cause should not receive equal treatment. P. 122.

(d) A plaintiff such as respondent, armed with the facts about the harm done to him, can protect himself by seeking advice in the medical and legal community, and to excuse him from promptly doing so by postponing the accrual of his claim would undermine the purpose of the limitations statute. Whether or not he is competently advised, or even whether he is advised, the putative malpractice plaintiff must determine within the period of limitations whether to sue or not, which is precisely the judgment that other tort plaintiffs must make. Pp. 123-124.

581 F.2d 1092, reversed.

Elinor H. Stillman, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Benjamin Kuby, Philadelphia, Pa., for respondent.

Page 113

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (Act),1 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), a tort claim against the United States is barred unless it is presented in writing to the appropriate federal agency "within two years after such claim accrues." The issue in this case is whether the claim "accrues" within the meaning of the Act when the plaintiff knows both the existence and the cause of his injury or at a later time when he also knows that the acts inflicting the injury may constitute medical malpractice.

I

Respondent Kubrick, a veteran, was admitted to the Veterans' Administration (VA) hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in April 1968, for treatment of an infection of the right femur. Following surgery, the infected area was irrigated with neomycin, an antibiotic, until the infection cleared. Approximately six weeks after discharge, Kubrick noticed

Page 114

a ringing sensation in his ears and some loss of hearing. An ear specialist in Scranton, Pa., Dr. Soma, diagnosed the condition as bilateral nerve deafness. His diagnosis was confirmed by other specialists. One of them, Dr. Sataloff, secured Kubrick's VA hospital records and in January 1969, informed Kubrick that it was highly possible that the hearing loss was the result of the neomycin treatment administered at the hospital. Kubrick, who was already receiving disability benefits for a service-connected back injury, filed an application for an increase in benefits pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 351,2 alleging that the neomycin treatment had caused his deafness. The VA denied the claim in September 1969, and on resubmission again denied the claim, on the grounds that no causal relationship existed between the neomycin treatment and the hearing loss and that there was no evidence of "carelessness, accident, negligence, lack of proper skill, error in judgment or other fault on the part of the Government."

In the course of pursuing his administrative appeal, Kubrick was informed by the VA that Dr. Soma had suggested a connection between Kubrick's loss of hearing and his prior occupation as a machinist. When questioned by Kubrick on June 2, 1971, Dr. Soma not only denied making the statement attributed to him but also told respondent that the neomycin had caused his injury and should not have been administered. On Dr. Sataloff's advice, respondent then consulted an attorney and employed him to help with his appeal. In rendering its decision in August 1972, the VA Board of

Page 115

Appeals recognized that Kubrick's hearing loss "may have been caused by the neomycin irrigation" but rejected the appeal on the ground that the treatment was in accordance with acceptable medical practices and procedures and that the Government was therefore faultless.3

Kubrick then filed suit under the Act, alleging that he had been injured by negligent treatment in the VA hospital.4 After trial, the District Court rendered judgment for Kubrick, rejecting, among other defenses, the assertion by the United States that Kubrick's claim was barred by the 2-year statute of limitations because the claim had accrued in January 1969, when he learned from Dr. Sataloff that his hearing loss had probably resulted from the neomycin. The District Court conceded that the lower federal courts had held with considerable uniformity that a claim accrues within the meaning of the Act when "the claimant has discovered, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the acts constituting the alleged malpractice," 435 F.Supp. 166, 180 (ED Pa.1977), and that notice of the injury and its cause normally were sufficient to trigger the limitations period.

Page 116

iId., at 184. As the District Court read the authorities, however, a plaintiff could avoid the usual rule by showing that he had exercised reasonable diligence and had no "reasonable suspicion" that there was negligence in his treatment. Id., at 185. "[W]e do not believe it reasonable to start the statute running until the plaintiff had reason at least to suspect that a legal duty to him had been breached." Ibid. Here, the District Court found, Kubrick had no reason to suspect negligence until his conversation with Dr. Soma in June 1971, less than two years prior to presentation of his tort claim.

The District Court went on to hold, based on the expert testimony before it, that a reasonably competent orthopedic surgeon in the Wilkes-Barre community, which the VA doctor held himself out to be, should have known that irrigating Kubrick's wound with neomycin would cause deafness. It was therefore negligent to use that drug in that manner. Damages were determined and awarded.

Except for remanding to resolve a setoff claimed by the United States,5 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. 581 F.2d 1092 (1978). It ruled that even though a plaintiff is aware of his injury and of the defendant's responsibility for it, the statute of limitations does not run where the plaintiff shows that "in the exercise of due diligence he did not know, nor should he have known, facts which would have alerted a reasonable person to the possibility that the treatment was improper." Id., at 1097. We granted certiorari to resolve this important question of the adminis-

Page 117

tration of the statute, 440 U.S. 906, 99 S.Ct. 1211, 59 L.Ed.2d 453 (1979), and we now reverse.

II

Statutes of limitations, which "are found and approved in all systems of enlightened jurisprudence," Wood v. Carpenter, 101 U.S. 135, 139, 25 L.Ed. 807 (1879), represent a pervasive legislative judgment that it is unjust to fail to put the adversary on notice to defend within a specified period of time and that "the right to be free of stale claims in time comes...

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2413 practice notes
  • Estate of Bryant v. Balt. Police Dep't, Civil Action No. ELH-19-384
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 10, 2020
    ...the harm done to him that reasonable inquiry will reveal his cause of action." Nassim, 64 F.3d at 955 (citing United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 122-24 (1979)). However, "the answer is not always so simple." McDonough, 139 S. Ct. at 2155. "Where, for example, a particular claim may not......
  • Neal v. Pentagon Fed. Credit Union, Civil Action No. ELH-18-451
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • November 5, 2018
    ...has (or should have) "possession of the critical facts that he has been hurt and who has inflicted the injury." United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 122 (1979) (discussing discovery rule in the context of the Federal Tort Claims Act, which contains a statute of limitations requiring noti......
  • Allstate Ins. v. Valley Physical Medicine & Rehab., No. 05-5934(DRH)(MLO).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • February 21, 2007
    ...a lesser degree of responsibility on the part of a RICO Plaintiff. 528 U.S. at 555, 120 S.Ct. 1075 (quoting United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 100 S.Ct. 352, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979)). It is the discovery of the injury, not the discovery of the injury and the underlying Page 230 acts, whi......
  • Barnes v. Doe, No. 13–5014.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • January 21, 2015
    ...to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them.” Id. at 1291 (quoting United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117, 100 S.Ct. 352, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Turning to the text, we ask whether § 2401(b)'s six-month statut......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2418 cases
  • Estate of Bryant v. Balt. Police Dep't, Civil Action No. ELH-19-384
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • February 10, 2020
    ...the harm done to him that reasonable inquiry will reveal his cause of action." Nassim, 64 F.3d at 955 (citing United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 122-24 (1979)). However, "the answer is not always so simple." McDonough, 139 S. Ct. at 2155. "Where, for example, a particular claim may not......
  • Neal v. Pentagon Fed. Credit Union, Civil Action No. ELH-18-451
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • November 5, 2018
    ...has (or should have) "possession of the critical facts that he has been hurt and who has inflicted the injury." United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 122 (1979) (discussing discovery rule in the context of the Federal Tort Claims Act, which contains a statute of limitations requiring noti......
  • Allstate Ins. v. Valley Physical Medicine & Rehab., No. 05-5934(DRH)(MLO).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • February 21, 2007
    ...a lesser degree of responsibility on the part of a RICO Plaintiff. 528 U.S. at 555, 120 S.Ct. 1075 (quoting United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 100 S.Ct. 352, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979)). It is the discovery of the injury, not the discovery of the injury and the underlying Page 230 acts, whi......
  • Barnes v. Doe, No. 13–5014.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • January 21, 2015
    ...to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them.” Id. at 1291 (quoting United States v. Kubrick, 444 U.S. 111, 117, 100 S.Ct. 352, 62 L.Ed.2d 259 (1979)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Turning to the text, we ask whether § 2401(b)'s six-month statut......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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