If you live in Alabama and are thinking about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, there are a number of state laws that could have a big impact on the outcome of your case. It's important to understand at the outset that these cases are typically very complicated, and you'll most likely need the help of an experienced medical malpractice attorney. But it can also be helpful to understand the basic outlines of the process before you get started. This article will discuss some of those details, including:
All states have deadlines for filing lawsuits in civil court, set by laws called "statutes of limitations." These laws are strictly enforced, and if you miss the deadline by filing your claim too late, the court will dismiss your case (unless some exception exists). You will then have lost the right to pursue compensation for your injuries in court. That's why it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations.
Like many states, Alabama has a specific statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits. The law gives the injured patient two years from the date the alleged malpractice was committed to file the claim. But Alabama's discovery rule could extend the filing deadline if the malpractice "is not discovered and could not reasonably have been discovered" during the two years after it occurred. In that situation, you have six months from the date of the discovery or the "date of discovery of facts which would reasonably lead to such discovery," whichever is earlier, to file the lawsuit.
But Alabama also has an absolute time limit for filing medical malpractice lawsuits called a "statute of repose." The statute of repose gives the injured patient no more than four years from the date the medical error was committed to file the claim, even if the injury wasn't discovered (and couldn't have been discovered) within those four years.
As noted above, there are exceptions to these deadlines—one of which applies to minor children. If the injured patient is younger than 19 years old at the time of the malpractice, the child (or a parent or guardian) typically has four years to get the lawsuit started. But if the patient was under four years old at the time of the injury, the patient's eighth birthday is the filing deadline.
There are other (rare) exceptions to the rules described above. You can find Alabama's statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases at Alabama Code § 6-5-482. And a good medical malpractice attorney can help you determine which deadline is applicable to your specific case.
Many states have passed laws requiring the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) in a medical malpractice case to submit some proof of the defendant's negligence at the beginning of the case before proceeding with the lawsuit. This proof is usually in a written statement (sometimes called an "affidavit of merit") from another health care provider saying that the defendant health care provider committed medical negligence. Alabama, though, has no such requirement.
But Alabama does have a law outlining the specific points that the plaintiff must include in the initial complaint (the filing that starts the case). Under Alabama Code § 6-5-551, a medical malpractice complaint must contain:
If the complaint fails to provide a specific description of each of the health care provider's acts of alleged malpractice, the lawsuit is subject to dismissal.
As part of tort reform efforts, some states place "caps" (or limits) on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a successful medical malpractice case. Most states with these laws cap only noneconomic damages, which can include compensation for difficult to quantify losses, such as pain and suffering and physical impairment. On the other hand, most states that impose limits on damages don't apply them to economic damages, which can include compensation for lost income and past and future medical expenses.
While Alabama has a law on the books capping damages in medical malpractice cases, the state's Supreme Court has ruled that the caps are unconstitutional. That means that there's currently no limit on the amount of economic or noneconomic damages a medical malpractice plaintiff can be awarded.
In some medical malpractice cases, the defendant might argue that you are at least in part responsible for causing your own injuries by, for example, failing to follow the doctor's instructions. If you go to trial and are found to be partially liable, depending on state law, that finding will reduce or even eliminate your damage award.
Most states follow some variation of a "comparative negligence" rule, which reduces plaintiffs' compensation in proportion to their share of the fault. Alabama, though, is one of a handful of states that follows a "contributory negligence" rule, which states that you are completely barred from recovering any damages if you are found to be even slightly at fault for your injuries. For example, if the court finds that your doctor's negligence was 95% responsible for your injuries, but that you were 5% responsible, you still won't be able to receive any compensation—even though the doctor was mostly at fault.