If you're thinking about making a medical malpractice claim in Massachusetts, there are a few key state laws to keep in mind. In this article, we'll discuss Massachusetts laws that address time limits on filing medical malpractice lawsuits, damage caps, and more.
All states have very specific deadlines for filing medical malpractice cases. These deadlines are called statutes of limitations. Medical malpractice statutes of limitations can be somewhat complex because they may contain as many as three or four separate deadlines. Let's take a look at what Massachusetts law has to say.
The first part of the statute of limitations is the standard deadline, which gives victims of medical malpractice three years to go to Massachusetts civil court and file a lawsuit after the malpractice occurred. If you do not file a medical malpractice lawsuit within those three years, you lose your right to sue for medical malpractice unless you fall within one of the exceptions discussed in the next sections.
The second part of the statute of limitations is called the discovery rule, an exception to the standard deadline in situations where the victim could not reasonably have learned that he/she even had a medical malpractice case. The Massachusetts discovery rule states that, if the injured person did not discover the medical malpractice claim -- and could not reasonably have discovered it -- within the regular three year statute of limitations, then the lawsuit may be commenced three years from the date that the injured person had knowledge or sufficient notice that the defendant’s medical treatment may have caused the injuries.
The third part of the statute of limitations is the deadline for minors (children under age 18) or their parents or legal guardians to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. In Massachusetts, a minor child must file a medical malpractice lawsuit within three years from the date the minor’s parents had knowledge or sufficient notice that the defendant’s medical treatment may have caused the child’s injuries, with one exception: a minor child less than six years old has until his/her ninth birthday to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.
The fourth part of the statute of limitations is sometimes called a statute of repose, which imposes an absolute deadline to medical malpractice claims, regardless of when the victim discovered them. In Massachusetts, the statute of repose provides that a medical malpractice lawsuit may not be commenced more than seven years after the alleged malpractice -- regardless of any of the exceptions discussed above -- except where the medical malpractice lawsuit is based upon the leaving of a foreign object in the body.
Massachusetts has other exceptions to the statute of limitations that may 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 incompetent.
Some states have caps on medical malpractice damages (in other words, limits on the amount and/or type of compensation that an injured patient can receive).
In Massachusetts, a medical malpractice victim may not receive more than $500,000 for pain and suffering, loss of companionship, embarrassment and other items of general damages. But this cap will not apply if it is shown that the plaintiff's injuries include a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function, or substantial disfigurement, or if some other special circumstance exists which warrants a finding that imposition of the cap would deprive the plaintiff of the chance to get fair compensation for his or her injuries.
In some medical malpractice cases, the defendant may argue that you are at least in part liable 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, that finding will reduce or even eliminate your damage award, depending on state law.
Massachusetts follows a "modified comparative negligence" rule. So, if you are found partially negligent with respect to your injury, illness, or medical condition, your award of damages is diminished in proportion to your fault. If, for example, you were awarded $100,000 in damages, but were found 20% at fault, your damages would be reduced to $80,000. However, if the jury finds that your fault is equal to or greater than the defendant’s fault, then you are not entitled to recover any damages, and your case will be dismissed.
Many states have passed laws requiring plaintiffs’ lawyers in medical malpractice cases to submit some proof of the defendant’s negligence at the beginning of the case.
In Massachusetts, after the lawsuit is filed, the plaintiff’s lawyer must make an Offer of Proof to a special three-person tribunal that consists of a Superior Court judge, a physician from the same field of medicine as the defendant, and an attorney. The tribunal decides whether the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of negligence to allow the lawsuit to proceed. If the tribunal rules against the plaintiff, the plaintiff can still continue with the lawsuit, but must file a $6,000 bond. This law can be found at Massachusetts General Law chapter 231, section 60B.