Like just about every other type of legal claim, medical malpractice claims are subject to lawsuit filing deadlines that are set by state law. This kind of law is known as a statute of limitations. The purpose of this article is to help you understand how a medical malpractice claim can be affected by the statute of limitations, and the importance of paying attention to the deadline as it applies to your case.
What is a Statute of Limitations?
The term, “statute of limitations” refers to laws that limit that amount of time a person has to bring a lawsuit. Different deadlines are in place depending on the type of claim you want to file. So, the statute of limitations for a breach of contract claim might be different from the one that applies to a personal injury lawsuit. But the end result is the same if you do not file within the designated time period: The court will throw out your lawsuit (usually after the defendant files a motion to dismiss) and your right to a civil remedy will be lost, with a few exceptions. So, it's easy to see why it is so crucial to understand and abide by the statute of limitations as it applies to your medical malpractice case.
Medical Malpractice Statutes of Limitations
In most states, there is a specific statute of limitations in place for medical malpractice claims. Part of the reason for this is it may not be obvious when a potential claim arises. It may be months -- or even years -- before a person who received sub-standard medical care becomes aware that they were actually harmed by it, and that they may have a valid medical malpractice claim. For example, if a person has surgery, and a piece of sponge or a fragment of an instrument is left behind, it may not be immediately obvious. There may be no pain in the area right away, and the patient may not exhibit any symptoms for quite a while after the surgical error was actually committed.
Discovery of a Medical Malpractice Claim
As detailed in the example above, it wouldn't be fair and equitable for a patient to lose their right to file a lawsuit before they even knew that they had been harmed by medical malpractice. And the law in most states recognizes that.
In order to address this issue, many states have adopted what is known as a “discovery rule.” The discovery rule allows people some slack in those instances where they do not discover that they were harmed within the statutory time limit. Under the discovery rule the statute of limitations does not begin to run until a person discovers he or she has been injured. Keep in mind that this rule usually will not apply if a reasonable person should have discovered the injury within the time limit. If you ignore obvious symptoms and indications of a problem, you can't turn around and try to take advantage of the discovery rule.
Consider this example: Assume a doctor has provided sub-standard treatment to a patient. For several months, the patient shows no symptoms. However, one day the symptoms amplify, and the patient begins to experience severe and debilitating pain at the site of the surgical procedure. Suppose, for whatever reason, the person decides not to go to the doctor even though a reasonable person would probably seek medical care under those same circumstances. In this example, the statute of limitations would probably begin to run at the point the person should have discovered the injury, i.e. the date the person began experiencing severe pain.
The Typical Medical Malpractice Statutes of Limitations is Two to Three Years
Regardless of where you live, the statute of limitations for a medical malpractice claim will typically give you two or three years to get your case filed in the state's civil court system.
But remember that as with all laws, each state is different when it comes to the specific filing deadline (and any exceptions that may apply). To find out for sure how long you have to bring a medical malpractice claim, contact a lawyer who is licensed in your state to understand the exact time window that applies in your case.
The Importance of Competent Legal Counsel
Perhaps more than any other area of personal injury law, medical malpractice claims require the assistance of competent counsel. These types of claims can be incredibly complex from both a legal and a medical standpoint. Beyond issues like the application of the statute of limitations, your state might require medical malpractice plaintiffs to jump through other procedural hoops, such as the filing of an affidavit of merit alongside the lawsuit, and securing testimony of a qualified expert medical witness. An experienced attorney will know how to anticipate and navigate these requirements in your state, and can put your claim in the best position for success.