A medical malpractice lawsuit is a complicated endeavor, especially when compared with other injury-related legal claims. That's true in every state, Montana included. It's not just because legal issues and medical evidence can get very complex very quickly in these kinds of cases. It's also because a medical malpractice plaintiff (that's the injured patient, or the patient's legal representative) needs to comply with a number of strict procedural rules right at the outset of the case, and get familiar with state laws that limit a plaintiff's compensation. In this article, we'll look at a few key Montana medical malpractice laws.
A statute of limitations is a state law that sets a limit on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. If you try to file your lawsuit after the medical malpractice statute of limitations deadline has passed, you can bet that the doctor or health care facility you're trying to sue will ask the court to dismiss the case. If the court grants the request (which it almost certainly will), that's the end of your lawsuit.
Montana's statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits is codified at Montana Code section 27-2-205, and it currently declares that this kind of case must be filed in the state's civil court system "within two years after the date of injury or within two years after the plaintiff discovers or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered the injury, whichever occurs last."
(Editor's note: According to Montana Code Annotated section 27-2-205, this two-year deadline applies to any medical malpractice lawsuit filed in Montana's courts before June 30, 2019. For Montana medical malpractice lawsuits filed on or after July 1, 2019, a three-year deadline will apply, subject to the same rules and exceptions discussed below.)
There is a larger catch-all filing deadline for medical malpractice lawsuits in Montana, which says "in no case may an action be commenced after five years from the date of injury." So, no lawsuit can be filed if more than five years have passed since the alleged medical error was committed, regardless of whether the patient knew or should have known that he or she was harmed by it.
One final note, the statute of limitations will be "tolled" (will stop running, in other words) for any period during which the defendant knew, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known, that malpractice was committed, but failed to disclose it to the plaintiff. The over-arching five-year deadline does not apply to these kinds of cases.
Before you can file a medical malpractice lawsuit in Montana's courts, in most instances you must first file a claim with the Montana Medical Legal Panel. A lawsuit-filing prerequisite like this is Montana's attempt to discourage the filing of frivolous medical malpractice cases in court.
First, the injured patient must file an Application for Review of Claim, according to Montana Code Annotated section 27-6-302. This application includes:
To get an idea of what this looks like, see an Application for Review of Claim.
Next, a hearing is held, at which each side makes an introductory statement, witnesses are called to testify, and evidence is introduced. The panel then goes into deliberations, during which it considers:
The panel's majority decision is communicated to the parties, and though it's not binding, the panel can recommend a certain financial award for the patient.
A few final notes on this process: The panel has the power to discuss and approve a settlement agreement which will be binding on the parties. And if the panel finds substantial evidence that the patient was harmed by malpractice, and a lawsuit is filed in court, the court must order the parties to participate in mediation if any party requests it.
Like many states, Montana has passed a law that limits (or "caps") non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, effectively limiting the amount of money that a successful plaintiff can receive, even after a jury has found the defendant liable for medical malpractice.
Montana's cap for non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases is set at $250,000, according to Montana Code Annotated section 25-9-411.
So, what are non-economic damages? They are meant to compensate the plaintiff for the negative effects of medical malpractice that aren't easily calculable; losses that are more subjective from plaintiff to plaintiff. They include compensation for pain and suffering, stress and anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, scarring and disfigurement, and similar harm caused by the defendant's malpractice.
It's important to point out that Montana's cap on medical malpractice damages does not apply to economic damages, which are losses that include the plaintiff's past medical bills, cost of future medical care, reimbursement of lost earnings, compensation for harm to the plaintiff's ability to work because of the malpractice, and any other provable losses that can be tied to the malpractice and/or to the medical treatment that was made necessary by it.
If you're looking for more specifics on Montana'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.