Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Laws

A look at the tribunal review process for Massachusetts medical malpractice lawsuits, the statute of limitations deadline, and the Massachusetts cap on medical malpractice damages.

A medical malpractice lawsuit is usually a pretty complex undertaking in any state, Massachusetts included. First, the legal and medical issues common to these cases are notoriously complicated. And second, the plaintiff (the injured patient, or his or her legal representative) usually needs to comply with one or more procedural rules that are unique to these kinds of lawsuits. Finally, the plaintiff needs to understand how any statutory compensation limits ("damages caps") will affect a successful court case. In this article, we'll look at some key Massachusetts medical malpractice laws, including the tribunal review requirement, the lawsuit-filing deadline, and the Massachusetts medical malpractice damages cap.

Massachusetts's Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Like most states, Massachusetts has a specific statute of limitations that applies to medical malpractice lawsuits. These kinds of laws set a time limit (which is expressed in years) on your right to file your case in the state’s court system. If you wait too long to get the case started -- you try to file the initial complaint after the time limit set by the law has passed, in other words -- the court will probably throw your case out. In a malpractice case, that usually happens after the doctor or health care entity you are trying to sue points out that the statutory deadline has passed, and they file a motion to dismiss the case.

Now, onto the law in Massachusetts, where the standard statute of limitations for a medical malpractice lawsuit can be found at Massachusetts General Laws chapter 260 section 4, and it gives an injured patient three years to get the lawsuit process started, measured from the date that the harm was inflicted. That usually means three years from the date that the alleged malpractice occurred, but if the harm wasn’t discovered right away (and you couldn’t reasonably have been expected to discover it), then the "clock" might not start running until you actually know you were harmed by a medical error.

But Massachusetts also has an overarching filing deadline for medical malpractice cases which says that any such lawsuit cannot be filed more than seven years after the alleged medical error occurred, regardless of when you discover the harm, and even if you could not have reasonably been expected to discover the harm during all that time. The only exception is for cases where a foreign object is left in the body, as when a surgical sponge is left inside a patient after an invasive procedure. In those kinds of cases only, the three year filing deadline applies, and there is no larger deadline.

Tribunal Review and the "Offer of Proof" in Massachusetts

Whenever a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed in the state, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 231 Section 60B requires that, within 15 days of the defendant health care provider's filed response to the lawsuit, the plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) present an "offer of proof" to a special three-personal tribunal made up of:

  • a justice of the Massachusetts superior court
  • a licensed physician who practices in the field of medicine relevant to the plaintiff's claimed injuries, and
  • an attorney licensed to practice law in Massachusetts.

This tribunal is charged with determining whether the plaintiff's evidence is enough to raise a "legitimate question" of whether the defendant health care provider was negligent in providing medical care to the plaintiff. In making this determination, the tribunal will consider all relevant medical records, treatment notes, test results, and statements from qualified medical experts.

If the tribunal finds sufficient evidence to raise a legitimate question of liability, the case proceeds to court like any other civil lawsuit.

But if the tribunal finds that the plaintiff hasn't met the burden of establishing "substantial evidence" of liability, the lawsuit can only proceed if the plaintiff files a $6,000 bond with the clerk of the court, to cover the defendant's legal fees and court costs if the plaintiff's suit is not successful. (Note: The court is free to increase the amount of the bond). And if the bond isn't posted within 30 days of the tribunal's decision, the plaintiff's medical malpractice lawsuit will be dismissed.

Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

Yes. Like dozens of other states, Massachusetts has a law on the books that limits or "caps" certain types of damages (compensation, in other words) available to a plaintiff who has been successful in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Massachusetts caps non-economic damages at $500,000 in medical malpractice cases (though exceptions exist; more on this below). So, what are non-economic damages? They include compensation for the plaintiff's pain and suffering, lost enjoyment of life, anxiety, disfigurement, and other effects of the defendant's medical negligence. These kinds of damages aren’t easily captured by a dollar figure, and they are more subjective from plaintiff to plaintiff.

It's important to note that Massachusetts has placed no cap on the other main type of medical malpractice damages, which is economic losses. This includes compensation for past medical expenses, ongoing medical care lost income, and any damage to the plaintiff’s ability to earn a living.

Finally, the Massachusetts cap on non-economic damages in a medical malpractice case will not apply if it is shown that the plaintiff's injuries include a substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function, or substantial disfigurement, or if some other special circumstance exists which warrants a finding that use of the cap would deprive the plaintiff of fair compensation for his or her injuries.

If you're looking for more specifics on Massachusetts's medical malpractice laws and how they apply to your potential case, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area.

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