If you're thinking of filing a medical malpractice lawsuit in Maine, there are a number of laws that you'll need to be familiar with before you head to court. Medical malpractice cases are extremely complicated, and you'll almost certainly need the help of an experienced attorney. But it can also be helpful to understand the process before you get started. In this article, we'll look at a few state laws that could affect your case, including:
A "statute of limitations" is a law that puts limits on the amount of time a plaintiff (the person suing) has to file a lawsuit. If you do not file a lawsuit before the prescribed time limit expires, you will lose your right to any compensation for your injuries. That's why it's critical to understand the deadlines.
Medical malpractice statutes of limitations can be particularly complicated because they often contain as many as three or four separate deadlines. We'll go through them below.
The standard filing deadline in a Maine medical malpractice lawsuit is three years "after the cause of action accrues." Under Maine law, the accrual date is the date on which the underlying medical error occurred. So that means you would have three years from the date of the health care provider's alleged negligence to file your lawsuit in civil court.
Many states follow what's called the "discovery rule" in medical malpractice cases where it's not immediately clear that the patient has been harmed by a medical error. Maine's discovery rule is more limited that most other states' and applies only in one situation: when a "foreign object" has been left in a patient's body. In that case, you have three years from the date you knew or reasonably should have known about the presence of the foreign object. Note that the law specifically states that, for the purpose of a medical malpractice claim, a "foreign object" does not include a "chemical compound, prosthetic aid," or other object intended to remain in the body as part of the patient's course of treatment.
(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 24, § 2902 (2022).)
There is a different deadline for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit when the injured patient is a minor (younger than eighteen years old). In Maine, a minor child (or a parent or guardian) must file a medical malpractice claim within six years from the date of the alleged malpractice or by the child's twenty-first birthday, whichever occurs first.
But, as with the standard deadline, if the claim is based on a foreign object left in the child's body, the clock starts at the time the plaintiff discovered or reasonably should have discovered the harm. In this case, the child has six years from the date the object was discovered (or reasonably should have been discovered), or by the age of 21, whichever occurs first.
(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 24, § 2902 (2022).)
Maine has other exceptions to the statute of limitations that could apply in a medical malpractice case, depending on the circumstances. For example, in many cases, the statute of limitations may be extended if the defendant fraudulently concealed the malpractice, if the defendant left the state after committing the malpractice, or if the victim of malpractice was legally insane or mentally incompetent. (See Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 14, §§ 853, 859, and 866 for details on when those exceptions apply.)
As part of their efforts at tort reform, many states have passed laws requiring medical malpractice plaintiffs (or their attorneys) to submit some proof of the health care provider's negligence at the beginning of the case, often in the form of an "affidavit of merit." In Maine, a potential plaintiff must file a "notice of claim" and then submit the case to what is called a "prelitigation screening panel."
In order to start a medical malpractice case, the injured patient must prepare a notice of claim and serve it on the defendant health care provider and file a copy with the court. The notice must provide details of the alleged negligence and of the injuries the patient suffered. (See Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 24, § 2853 for all of the details on the notice of claim requirement.)
After the plaintiff has filed the notice of claim and the health care provider has responded, the court will convene a prelitigation screening panel. The purpose of the panel is to encourage the settlement of claims that "merit compensation" and "encourage withdrawal or dismissal of nonmeritorious claims."
The panel process typically works like this:
The decision is confidential, except in cases where the panel unanimously votes in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. In those cases, the panel's findings become admissible in any subsequent trial.
One final note: The statute of limitations "clock" is paused from on the date you file the notice of claim until 30 days after the panel issues its decision.
(See Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 24, §§ 2851 through 2859 for all of the details on the prelitigation screening process.)
Some states limit the amount of compensation that can be awarded to a victim of medical malpractice, especially when it comes to noneconomic damages. These limits are known as "damage caps." Maine, though, has no damage cap that applies specifically to medical malpractice cases.
But state law does apply a cap in wrongful death cases. When a plaintiff succeeds in a wrongful death case where a health care provider's negligence caused the person's death, the law places a $750,000 cap on damages for loss of comfort, society and companionship of the deceased, and emotional distress.
(Me. Rev. Stat. tit. 18-C, § 2-807 (2022).)
In some medical malpractice cases, the defendant might argue that you are at least partially responsible for causing your own injuries by, for example, failing to follow the doctor's orders after surgery. If you go to trial and are found partially liable, that finding could reduce or even eliminate your damage award, depending on state law.
Maine follows a "modified comparative negligence" rule. This means that, if you are found to be partially at fault for causing your injury, illness, or medical condition, your award will be reduced in proportion to your fault. If, for example, you were awarded $100,000 in damages, but the jury found that you were 20 percent responsible, your damages would be reduced to $80,000. But if the jury finds that your fault is equal to or greater than the defendant's, then you cannot recover any damages at all.