What is the statute of limitations for a medical malpractice lawsuit in Washington, D.C.?

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Question:

What is the statute of limitations for a medical malpractice lawsuit in Washington, D.C.?

Answer:

The District of Columbia, like a number of states in the U.S., has a broad statute of limitations that applies to many kinds of injury-related civil lawsuits, including medical malpractice cases.

But first, in case your legalese is a little rusty, a “statute of limitations” is a law that sets a time limit on a prospective plaintiff’s right to file a lawsuit after suffering some kind of harm. The deadline is typically expressed in years.  

Now, onto the specifics of the law in the District of Columbia. The standard statute of limitations as it applies to a medical malpractice lawsuit (D.C. Code section 12-301) gives you three years to get your lawsuit filed, starting “from the time the right to maintain the action accrues.”  In most medical malpractice cases, that typically means three years from the date when the alleged medical error occurred, but in some cases it can mean three years from the date on which you discover -- or could reasonably have been expected to discover -- that you were harmed by medical malpractice.

The main exceptions to D.C.’s strict three-year deadline for filing a medical malpractice lawsuit come into play when the prospective plaintiff is a minor (under 18 years of age), is declared mentally incompetent, or is in prison. In those situations, the statute of limitations is “tolled” (meaning that the “clock” doesn’t run) until the plaintiff’s status changes -- meaning he or she turns 18, is declared mentally competent, or is released from incarceration.   

What if you try to file your medical malpractice case after the deadline has passed?  Usually what happens is the doctor or health care entity you are trying to sue will point out that the statutory deadline has passed, they will file a motion to dismiss the case, and the court will grant that motion. You’ll end up losing your right to ask the court for any civil remedy for the defendant’s wrongdoing and the harm it caused you. That’s why it’s crucial to pay attention to the statute of limitations as it applies to your medical malpractice case.

by: David Goguen, J.D.

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