Medical malpractice are often very complicated. That's true in all states, including Utah. While you'll almost certainly need the help of an experienced medical malpractice attorney, it's important to know what you're getting into if you're thinking about filing a claim over a health care provider's medical negligence. This article will look at some of the most important laws that apply to medical malpractice cases in Utah, including deadlines for filing the lawsuit, the procedural rules you must follow in order to file your claim, the limits on certain types of compensation you can receive if your case succeeds, and what happens if the court finds you partly to blame for your injuries.
A "statute of limitations" is a law that sets strict limits on the time a plaintiff (that's the person filing the lawsuit) has to get a claim to court. Utah, like most states, has a statute of limitations specifically for medical malpractice cases. And like many other states, Utah follows the "discovery rule" in medical malpractice cases. The law says that injured patients have two years from the date they discover, or "through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered," the injury—whichever comes first. So if you couldn't know that you had been injured by a health care provider's mistake right away, you have two years from the date you discover the harm to file your lawsuit. But, under what's called a "statute of repose," the law states that you cannot file a medical malpractice claim more than four years after the medical error occurred, even if you don't discover it until later.
There are two exceptions to the standard deadline described above:
When a "foreign object" was left in a patient's body. In a case where a health care provider has allegedly "wrongfully left" a foreign object—such as a surgical instrument or sponge, for example—in the patient's body, the injured person has one year from the date they discovered or should have discovered the presence of the object, whichever comes first.
When the health care provider fraudulently concealed the malpractice. Similarly, in a case where the health care provider prevents the patient from discovering the alleged malpractice by acting to "fraudulently conceal" it, the patient has one year from the date they discovered or should have discovered the cover-up, whichever occurs first.
(Utah Code § 78B-3-404 (2022).)
In their efforts toward "tort reform," Utah legislators have enacted laws that lay out a series of steps a potential plaintiff in a medical malpractice case must follow before actually filing the lawsuit.
Under Utah law, the injured patient must first provide each health care provider (the "defendants" in the lawsuit) with a "notice of intent to commence an action" at least 90 days before beginning the case. The notice must contain a number of specific details, including:
Then, within 60 days after serving the notice(s) of intent, the injured patient must file a request for a "prelitigation panel review" with the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. The panel will hear evidence, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the claim, and issue an opinion as to whether the case has merit. The process is confidential—and the panel's decision is nonbinding—but a potential plaintiff must jump through this hoop before filing the lawsuit.
It's important to note that the statute of limitations is "tolled" (paused) from the time the potential plaintiff requests the panel until 60 days after the panel issues its opinion (or the statutory deadline for the panel to hold a hearing passes).
These procedural rules are complicated. See Utah Code §§ 78B-3-412, 78B-3-416, and 78B-3-418 for all of the details on these requirements. And to understand how the law affects your specific case, contact an experienced Utah medical malpractice attorney.
Some states require a plaintiff to obtain an "affidavit of merit" from an expert witness prior to filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. Utah, too, has a law on the books requiring an affidavit of merit in certain circumstances, which can be found at Utah Code § 78B-3-423. But, in 2019, the Utah Supreme Court held that the law was unconstitutional, meaning that affidavits of merit are no longer a part of the medical malpractice lawsuit process in the state. (See Vega v. Jordan Valley Medical Center, LP, 449 P.3d 31 (2019).)
Utah law "caps" (or limits) the amount of certain types of compensation a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Like most other states with similar laws, the cap in Utah applies only to noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are the types of damages that are hard to quantify, such as pain and suffering and inconvenience. By statute, noneconomic damages in a Utah medical malpractice case are capped at $450,000.
Note that economic damages, such as compensation for lost wages and the costs of past or future medical care, are not capped. There are no limits on the amount of economic damages that can be awarded in a Utah medical malpractice case.
(Utah Code § 78B-3-410 (2022).)
You might be wondering what happens if the court determines that you were partially responsible for your own injuries—for example, by not following your doctor's post-surgery orders. In those cases, Utah follows a "modified comparative negligence" rule, which says that you can still recover damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit, but your award will be reduced according to your share of the negligence—and crucially, your share of liability must be less than 50 percent in order to recover from other at-fault parties.
So, for example, suppose you were awarded $100,000 in damages, but the court also finds that you were ten percent responsible for your own injuries. In that case, your damages would be reduced to $90,000. But if the court finds that your fault is equal to or greater than the defendant's, then you would be unable to recover any damages at all.