If you think that you might have a viable medical malpractice claim in the District of Columbia, you're probably wondering about the laws that could affect the outcome of your case. It's important to point out that medical malpractice cases are usually extremely complicated (and the help of a good lawyer is almost always a must). But it can be useful to understand the outlines of the process before you get started. In this article, we'll take a close look at some key laws that could affect a medical malpractice lawsuit or settlement in Washington, D.C., including:
All states and the District of Columbia have very specific deadlines for filing medical malpractice lawsuits, set by laws called "statutes of limitations." Medical malpractice statutes of limitations can be complex because they often contain as many as three or four separate deadlines. Let's look at the different rules for filing medical malpractice lawsuits in Washington, D.C. (See D.C. § Code 12-301.)
In Washington, D.C., the standard deadline for medical malpractice cases gives the injured patient three years from the date the medical error was committed to get the lawsuit started. That means, if you do not file a medical malpractice lawsuit within three years after the malpractice occurred, you'll lose the right for the court to hear your case—unless it falls under one of the exceptions discussed below.
Many states have statutes of limitations that apply what's known as the "discovery rule" to medical malpractice cases. The discovery rule provides an exception to the standard deadline in situations where the patient could not reasonably have learned about the injury soon after it happened. Under the District's discovery rule, courts have held that the "clock" on the three-year filing deadline does not begin running in a medical malpractice claim until the injured patient knows or reasonably should know:
Note that if try to argue that you didn't discover your injury until after the standard deadline of three years has passed, you have the burden of proving that you couldn't have reasonably discovered the health care provider's negligence any earlier than you did.
The District of Columbia has a special statute of limitations for minors (children younger than 18 years of age), the mentally incompetent, and the imprisoned. In legalese, people in those situations are said to be "under legal disability." In any of those cases, the three-year clock doesn't start running until the legal disability is removed—meaning the person turns 18, is declared mentally competent, or is released from prison. So, for example, children under age 18 at the time of the alleged malpractice have until their 21st birthday to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. (See D.C. Code § 12-302 for those rules.)
As part of broader tort-reform efforts, many states have passed laws requiring a plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) in a medical malpractice case to submit some type of proof of the defendant's negligence at the beginning of the case, often in the form of a document called a "certificate of merit."
While Washington, D.C. has no such requirement, District law does state that any person who intends to file a medical malpractice claim must notify ("serve," in legalese) the intended defendant in writing of the proposed lawsuit at least 90 days before filing the case in court. The notice must include:
If this notice is served on the health care provider within 90 days of the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations (discussed above), the lawsuit filing deadline will be extended 90 days from the day the notice was served on the health care provider.
Some states have enacted laws limiting the amount of compensation ("damages") a plaintiff can receive in a successful medical malpractice case. The District of Columbia, though, has no law that caps medical malpractice damages. That means a judge or jury is free to award any amount of money to compensate for losses the injured patient suffered as a result of the health care provider's negligence.
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 version of a "comparative negligence" rule, which reduces plaintiffs' compensation in proportion to their share of the fault. The District of Columbia, though, is one of a handful of jurisdictions that follows a "contributory negligence" rule, which states that you cannot recover any damages if you are found to be even slightly at fault in the case. So, for example, let's say the court finds that your doctor's negligence was 99 percent responsible for causing your injuries, but it also finds that you were five percent at fault. In that case, you wouldn't be able to receive any compensation at all, because you played some role—even if it's a very minor one—in causing your own injuries.