North Carolina Medical Malpractice Laws & Statute of Limitations

A look at North Carolina's statute of limitations deadline for medical malpractice lawsuits, the state's cap on "non-economic" damages in medical malpractice cases, and more.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're thinking about filing a medical malpractice claim in North Carolina, it's important to understand the different state laws that might affect your case, including:

  • time limits for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit in North Carolina's courts (set by a law called a "statute of limitations")
  • caps on the amount of money an injured patient can receive for certain kinds of losses ("damages"), and
  • the kinds of proof required to show a health care provider's liability for medical malpractice in North Carolina.

North Carolina Statute of Limitations for Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

A "statute of limitations" is a law that sets a strictly-enforced time limit on the right to file a lawsuit in court. Every state has these laws on the books, with different deadlines for different kinds of cases.

North Carolina's standard statute of limitations deadline for filing medical malpractice lawsuits says that this kind of case must be brought to court within three years of the date of the medical error giving rise to the case. (N.C. General Statutes section 1-15)

Are There Exceptions to the NC Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations?

The deadline set by North Carolina's medical malpractice statute of limitations can be extended, or the starting of the "clock" might be delayed, but these are tricky rules to understand and apply to a given situation. Here are a few examples of when the filing deadline might shift:

  • If the patient doesn't know about or doesn't discover the health care provider's error right away, they might have up to four years from the date of the alleged malpractice to get their lawsuit filed.
  • If a foreign object is left inside a patient—an instrument is left behind after surgery, for example—the patient has one year from the discovery of the object to file a medical malpractice lawsuit (but the case must be brought within ten years of the mistake).

What If I Miss the North Carolina Statute of Limitations Deadline?

It's crucial to pay attention to the statute of limitations as it applies to your case. If you try to file your lawsuit after the deadline has passed—and no exception applies to alter or extend the deadline—the court will throw out your case. That means you'll lose your right to any compensation for the health care provider's error and its impact on your life.

North Carolina Damages Caps In Medical Malpractice Cases

North Carolina, like many states, sets limits on the non-economic damages that are available to a successful plaintiff in a medical malpractice case.

Non-economic damages include compensation for non-monetary losses like pain and suffering or the loss of enjoyment of life caused by the medical malpractice. North Carolina law limits non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases to $500,000. Since 2014, this amount has been adjusted upward for inflation every third year. The latest increase (effective January 1, 2023) set the cap at $656,730.

It's important to note that this cap will not apply in cases where:

  • the injured patient suffered certain disfiguring or permanent injuries, AND
  • the defendant's conduct was reckless, grossly negligent, intentional, or malicious. (N.C. General Statutes section 90-21.19)

There May Be a Separate Trial for Economic Damages In a NC Medical Malpractice Case

North Carolina does not limit economic damages, which cover losses like medical bills and lost wages stemming from the malpractice. However, North Carolina does usually require two separate trials to be held if the amount of damages claimed is greater than $150,000. One trial focuses on liability, while the other focuses on the amount of damages. Both trials are heard by the same jury and judge. These two trials may be combined into a single proceeding if the judge finds that there's a good reason to take that step.

Evidence Requirements In North Carolina Medical Malpractice Cases

North Carolina has two laws specifically relating to the type and amount of evidence required in a medical malpractice case.

Expert Medical Witnesses In North Carolina

The first rule requires the injured person to have at least one qualified expert medical witness. In a sworn affidavit filed with the court, the expert must swear under oath that:

  • they've reviewed the injured person's medical records, and
  • they're prepared to testify that the defendant health care provider's action (or inaction) in treating the patient amounted to medical negligence.

Burden of Proof In North Carolina Medical Malpractice Cases

The second rule applies to the burden of proof in medical malpractice cases. In most cases, an injured patient must prove "by the greater weight of the evidence" (meaning that it was more likely than not) that the health care provider's failure to meet the standard of care caused the patient's injuries.

Getting Help With a North Carolina Medical Malpractice Case

If you've been harmed by a health care provider's mistake in North Carolina, it might make sense to discuss your situation with a legal professional, and get a clear sense of your options. Learn more about finding the right medical malpractice lawyer for you and your case.

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