Tennessee Medical Malpractice Laws & Statutory Rules

An introduction to the laws and statutory rules governing medical negligence claims in Tennessee.

In Tennessee, as in just about every state, there are special rules for lawsuits involving a health care provider's medical negligence. It's important to note that medical malpractice cases are usually extremely complicated, and you'll almost certainly need an experienced attorney to help you through the process. But it can also be useful to understand the basics before you get started. This article will cover some of the most important rules applying to medical malpractice claims in Tennessee, including:

  • the filing deadline for medical malpractice cases
  • the procedural rules for filing a medical malpractice case in the state, and
  • the limits on the amount of compensation you can receive if your case is successful.

Tennessee's Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

All states have laws that set out specific deadlines for filing medical malpractice lawsuits, called "statutes of limitations." In Tennessee, the standard deadline for filing a medical malpractice claim is one year from the date the medical error occurred or, under what's called the "discovery rule," one year from the date the injury was discovered. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-116 (2022).)

But according to what's known as a "statute of repose," Tennessee's law says that no medical malpractice case may be filed more than three years after the date the alleged malpractice occurred, with the following exceptions:

Fraudulent concealment. In situations where the health care provider engaged in "fraudulent concealment" to prevent the patient from discovering the medical error, the patient must file the lawsuit within one year after the fraud is discovered—whenever that occurs.

Foreign objects. In situations where a health care provider has negligently left a foreign object in the patient's body, the plaintiff must file the claim within one year of the date the foreign object or the injury is discovered—or should have been discovered, in the eyes of the law—even if that discovery occurs more than three years after the date of the procedure that resulted in the presence of the foreign object.

If you do not file a medical malpractice lawsuit before the applicable time limit expires, chances are you'll lose the right to pursue your claim in court. Statutes of limitations are strictly enforced, and, unless some rare exception exists, the court will dismiss your lawsuit as time-barred if you miss the deadline. That's why it's so important to understand and comply with these laws.

Procedural Requirements in Tennessee Medical Malpractice Cases

In their efforts at tort reform, many states, including Tennessee, have passed laws intended to prevent the filing of frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits. These laws often make potential medical malpractice plaintiffs jump through some specific procedural hoops at the beginning of the case. Read on for some of the basics of Tennessee's medical malpractice filing requirements.

The "Written Notice of Claim" Requirement

At least 60 days before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, the injured patient (or the patient's "authorized agent," such as an attorney) must send each health care provider who will be named as a defendant a written notice of the potential claim. The notice must include:

  • the plaintiff's full name and date of birth
  • the name and address of the person authorizing the notice, and the relationship to the patient, if the notice is not sent by the patient
  • the name and address of the attorney sending the notice (if applicable)
  • a list of the name and address of all providers being sent a notice, and
  • a HIPAA-compliant medical authorization document, permitting the provider receiving the notice to obtain complete medical records from each other provider being sent a notice.

See Tenn. Code § 29-26-121 for all of the details on the notice requirement.

The "Certificate of Good Faith" Requirement

In addition to the notice, most medical malpractice plaintiffs are also required to obtain and file a "certificate of good faith" (called a "certificate of merit" in some states) alongside the complaint that starts the case. The certificate must state that the plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) has consulted with one or more medical experts who have provided a signed, written statement confirming that:

  • they are competent under Tennessee law to express an opinion in the case, and
  • they believe that, based on a review of the patient's medical records and other evidence, there is a "good faith basis" for the lawsuit.

If you fail to file a certificate of good faith, the court may dismiss your case, unless you can show that you couldn't file the certificate on time because a health care provider who has medical records relevant to the issues in the case has failed to give you those records when requested, or "for other good cause shown." (This is just a quick summary of these rules; you can find all of the requirements at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-26-122.)

Caps on Damages in Tennessee Medical Malpractice Cases

Some states have laws on the books "capping" (or limiting) the amount of compensation ("damages") you can receive if your medical malpractice claim succeeds. In most states that have enacted these laws, including Tennessee, damages caps in medical malpractice cases apply only to noneconomic damages—such as pain and suffering or emotional harm—and not to economic damages, such as the costs of medical care or lost income.

In Tennessee, noneconomic damages are capped at $750,000 in medical malpractice cases, regardless of whether a single act caused the injury or a series of separate acts caused the injury. An exception is made, however, for cases that result in "catastrophic injuries." In those situations, damages are capped at $1 million. According to Tennessee law, "catastrophic injuries" include:

  • spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia
  • amputation of two hands, two feet, or one of each
  • third-degree burns covering 40 percent or more of the body or the face, or
  • wrongful death of a parent of a minor child or children.

Note that Tennessee's medical malpractice damages cap does not apply in any case where:

  • the defendant had a specific intent to inflict serious physical injury and the defendant's conduct did, in fact, injure the patient
  • the defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed, or concealed records containing material evidence in order to avoid liability, or
  • the defendant was under the influence of an intoxicant or stimulant, resulting in substantial impairment and causing injury or death.

(Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 (2022).)

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