If you're thinking about suing a doctor or other health care provider in Massachusetts for medical malpractice, you’ll most likely want to find a qualified medical malpractice lawyer to guide your claim through all of the complicated legal steps these cases involve. But you’ll also want to know when you need to take action, along with other rules that could affect the outcome of your case. This article gives you an overview those rules in Massachusetts, including:
A “statute of limitations” is a law that sets a time limit on when you may file a lawsuit. If you don’t meet the deadline, your case will almost always be dismissed. Like most states, Massachusetts has a specific statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits, but it also has various rules on when the “clock” for that time period starts running or pauses.
If you want to sue a health care provider for medical malpractice, Massachusetts law requires that you file the lawsuit within three years “after the cause of action accrues.” Generally, that happens when you are injured or otherwise harmed as a result of alleged medical negligence by the defendant physician or other health care provider. But Massachusetts courts apply the “discovery rule” in medical malpractice cases, which means that the three-year period doesn’t start until you learned—or reasonably should have discovered—that the care you received might have caused your injuries.
In addition, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has held that the three-year statute of limitations doesn’t begin to run while the patient is still receiving ongoing treatment from the defendant health care provider for the same medical condition. However, this ongoing-treatment exception to the standard discovery rule ends once the plaintiff actually knows that the defendant’s negligence was the cause of injury. (The "should have discovered" rule does not apply in this situation.) (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 4 (2021); Parr v. Rosenthal, 57 N.E.3d 947 (Mass. 2016).)
Generally, the three-year filing deadline in Massachusetts applies when the patient is a minor (under the age of 18). That means that the lawsuit must be filed within three years after the minor’s parents knew or should have known that the defendant’s medical treatment might have caused the child’s injuries. However, if the patient was under the age of six, the deadline is extended until the child’s ninth birthday. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch 231, § 60D (2021).)
Massachusetts also has an almost-absolute outside deadline for filing a medical malpractice action (known as a “statute of repose”), which applies regardless of the discovery date, when the physician-patient relationship ended, or the patient’s age. The lawsuit must be filed within seven years after the alleged negligence happened—unless that negligence involved leaving a foreign object (like a surgical instrument) in the patient’s body. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, § 4 (2021).)
In Massachusetts, there are certain circumstances that will “toll” (legalese for pause) the statute of limitations for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, including while:
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 260, §§ 7, 9, 12 (2021).)
Many states have laws requiring plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases to submit some evidence of the defendant’s negligence at the beginning of the case. In Massachusetts, this requirement doesn’t apply when you first file the lawsuit—but almost immediately afterwards.
Within 15 days after the defendant has filed a response to your complaint, you will need to submit what’s known as an “offer of proof” to a special medical malpractice tribunal. The offer of proof must include enough evidence to demonstrate that the following are probably true:
Along with the relevant medical records, the evidence should include a report from one or more medical experts or information from published medical books or periodicals. Typically, an expert’s opinion will be needed on the issue of the standard of care.
The three-person tribunal will review your offer of proof and, when appropriate, may subpoena other evidence and/or appoint an impartial expert to report back after examining you or the evidence. The tribunal will then decide whether the evidence raises a legitimate question about the defendant’s liability for medical malpractice, or whether your case was “merely an unfortunate medical result.” If the tribunal rules that your evidence isn’t sufficient to take your claim to court, you would have to post a bond (generally $6,000) in order to continue with the lawsuit. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 60B (2021).)
Like several other states, Massachusetts has set a limit on the amount of money you may receive for certain types of medical malpractice damages. Even if you win your lawsuit, you may not receive more than $500,000 for pain and suffering, loss of companionship, “embarrassment,” or other types of noneconomic damages (as opposed to economic damages such as lost income, extra medical bills, and other financial losses).
However, the cap on noneconomic damages will not apply if the jury (or judge) has found that you suffered substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function or substantial disfigurement as a result of the malpractice, or there are other “special circumstances” that justify awarding noneconomic damages over the $500,000 limit in order to ensure that you receive fair compensation for your injuries. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 60H (2021).)
In some medical malpractice cases, the defendant may argue that you were at least partially responsible for your injuries (for example, by failing to follow a doctor’s orders after a medical procedure). If the defendant proves that was true, your award for damages may be reduced—or eliminated altogether—under what’s known as the "modified comparative negligence" rule in Massachusetts.
Modified comparative negligence works like this:
(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 85 (2021).)