Early in the pandemic, courts across the country closed their doors to visitors. Many postponed in-person oral arguments and hearings, and deadlines for filing documents were extended or suspended. 

General reductions in staff and resources have forced courts on federal, state and local levels to limit their case dockets and truncate trial schedules. And even as courts slowly begin to re-open, it's not expected to be “business as usual.”

The New York City court system recently announced that while its courts and those of the surrounding counties will re-open on May 25 to “nonessential” matters, new lawsuits will need to be filed electronically and not in paper form, Law360 reported.

The measures reflect the far-reaching impact of COVID-19 on the courts, signaling the necessity of creating a “new normal” in the near and distant future. 

Statutes of Limitations

A specific concern to litigants is the potential changes in statutes of limitations (SOL). Statutes of limitations are defined as a time period after which one cannot submit a claim in court, and it begins on what is known as the “accrual” date.

The accrual date is the point at which the party bringing the claim has knowledge of necessary facts to present the claim in court. An example of statutes of limitations would be two, five or 10 years following the accrual date.

If the plaintiff fails to bring the claim within the specified period of time set in the statute of limitations, the claim can be “barred." It cannot be brought to the court and will be dismissed.

COVID-19 may pose particular challenges to established statutes of limitations in medical-related lawsuits for myriad reasons. First, the general and widespread backlog surrounding virtually every aspect of cases, from discovery to interviewing witnesses to obtaining proper documentation to filing, can prohibit the system from meeting and adhering to standard time frames.

For persons involved in medical device and pharmaceutical lawsuits, it may be difficult to determine the date of accrual. For example, in cases involving malfunctioning medical devices, such as the installation of a faulty pacemaker, the accrual date for the statute of limitation window begins when the affected person “could have reasonably discovered” he had a bad pacemaker implanted.

The SOL window does not often begin when the patient is implanted with the pacemaker operation. It may begin when the patient begins to feel the adverse effects of the device, or when the physician learns from the pacemaker company (or another agency) that the device is faulty.

Under normal circumstances, the plaintiffs and defendants may argue about the accrual date to some degree in order to be held to a statute that is most advantageous to their side of the case. In current times, COVID-19 could further complicate complex statutes.

What if the patient experiences problems with a medical device only after contracting COVID-19? Is this relationship correlative or causal? And if it is causal, what is the reasonable responsibility of the physician who originally implanted it and/or its manufacturer? Are such parties liable for damages surrounding extraordinary health events like COVID-19? And, for how long?

These and other pending questions raise the stakes surrounding statutes of limitations, dramatically affecting cases with the potential to set future precedents. 

Tolling Doctrines

Certain states have responded to the diverse concerns by enacting “tolling" — a rule allowing for the pause or delay of legal time periods, including statutes of limitations, JD Supra reported.

In March of 2020, Texas, for example, issued Emergency Order 1, which provided all state courts the option to “extend the statute of limitations in any civil case for a stated period ending no later than 30 days after the governor’s state of disaster has been lifted."

Pandemic conditions are shifting rapidly throughout the United States. Individuals considering bringing claims involving medical devices and pharmaceutical companies are advised to refer to court announcements to stay current on tolling status and other updates regarding statutes of limitations.