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—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.

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. The law gives an injured patient three years to get the lawsuit process started. Usually, the three-year time frame is measured from the date that patient suffered harm as a result of a medical error. 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 such 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.

At the same time, however, Massachusetts 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 (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.

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.

Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

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 noneconomic damages at $500,000 in medical malpractice cases (though exceptions exist; more on this below). So, what are noneconomic 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 and ongoing medical expenses necessitated by the malpractice, lost income, and any damage to the plaintiff’s ability to earn a living.

Finally, 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 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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