Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Laws

The Massachusetts medical malpractice statute of limitations deadline, the state's cap on medical malpractice damages, and more.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated 4/08/2022

A medical malpractice lawsuit is usually a pretty complex undertaking in any state, Massachusetts included. For one thing, the legal and medical issues common to these cases are notoriously complicated. On top of that, injured patients need to be aware of special court rules that are unique to these kinds of lawsuits.

In this article, we'll look at:

  • the Massachusetts statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims, which sets a time limit on an injured patient's right to take a health care provider to court over a medical error
  • the "tribunal review" requirement for most medical malpractice lawsuits filed in Massachusetts court, and
  • the Massachusetts dollar limit "cap" on medical malpractice damages.

The Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations sets a time limit on your right to file your case in the state's court system.

Like most states, Massachusetts has a specific statute of limitations that applies to medical malpractice lawsuits, and it can be found at Massachusetts General Laws chapter 260, section 4. The law gives an injured patient three years to get the lawsuit process started.

When Does the Statute of Limitations "Clock" Start?

Usually, the three-year time frame is measured from the date that patient suffered harm as a result of the alleged medical malpractice. But under what's known as the "discovery rule," Massachusetts courts have held that the "clock" doesn't start running until:

  • you knew that a medical provider's negligence might have caused your injuries, or
  • you were alerted to that possibility, so that you reasonably should have been expected to discover what happened.

Also, the state's highest court has held that the three-year limitations period doesn't start while the patient is receiving ongoing care from the defendant medical provider, as long as the patient doesn't actually know about the medical error and its role in harming the patient.

The Medical Malpractice "Statute of Repose" In Massachusetts

Despite the "discovery" rule and the continuing-treatment exceptions discussed above, Massachusetts also has a "statute of repose" for medical malpractice lawsuits. This law sets an overarching filing deadline for medical malpractice cases, declaring that they can't be filed more than seven years after the alleged medical error occurred:

  • regardless of when the injured patient discovered (or should have discovered) the harm, and
  • even if the provider-patient relationship continued throughout that time.

The only exception to this seven-year deadline is for cases where a foreign object (like a surgical sponge or instrument) is left in the body after an invasive procedure. Although the three-year basic deadline applies in those kinds of cases, there is no outside deadline that overrides the discovery rule or the continuing-treatment exception.

What Happens If You Miss the Statute of Limitations Deadline?

If you wait too long to get your medical malpractice case started—in other words, you try to file the initial complaint after the time limit set by the law has passed—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 filing deadline has passed, and they file a motion to dismiss the case.

Learn more about the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases.

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 says that, within 15 days after the defendant health care provider has filed its response to the lawsuit, the plaintiff (or the plaintiff's attorney) must 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 (or another representative from the relevant medical field if the defendant isn't a doctor), 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.

Does Massachusetts Cap Medical Malpractice Damages?

Like dozens of other states, Massachusetts has a law on the books that limits or "caps" certain types of medical malpractice damages (compensation, in other words) available to a plaintiff who has been successful in their lawsuit. Specifically, Massachusetts caps noneconomic damages at $500,000 in medical malpractice cases. There are exceptions to this cap, which we'll cover later.

What are Noneconomic Damages?

Noneconomic damages include compensation for the injured patient's:

  • pain and suffering (mental and physical)
  • lost enjoyment of life
  • anxiety, and
  • other subjective, non-financial effects of the defendant health care provider's medical error.

Unlike economic damages (like the cost of medical care and lost income), which are uncapped in Massachusetts, noneconomic damages aren't easy to capture with a dollar figure.

Learn more about medical malpractice damages.

Exceptions to the Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

The Massachusetts cap on noneconomic damages in a medical malpractice case will not apply if:

  • 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 that would make use of the cap unfair to the plaintiff in light of the harm they suffered.

Getting Help With a Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Case

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.

A medical malpractice lawsuit isn't the kind of legal action you want to try taking on your own. The complexity of these cases on all fronts, combined with the level of fight you can expect from the health care provider you're trying to sue (and their malpractice insurance company) make medical malpractice lawsuits uniquely challenging.

Putting your case in the hands of an experienced legal professional is often a must if you want to guarantee the best result. Learn more about hiring and working with a medical malpractice lawyer. You can also use the tools on this page to connect with a lawyer in your area.

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