Compared with other injury-related legal claims, a medical malpractice lawsuit is usually a fairly complex undertaking. That's true in every state, not just New Jersey. Legal issues and medical evidence can get very complicated very quickly in these cases, and the plaintiff (the injured patient, or his or her legal representative) needs to understand the special procedural rules and compensation limits that come into play. In this article, we'll look at some key New Jersey medical malpractice laws, including the "affidavit of merit" requirement and the statutory lawsuit-filing deadline.
New Jersey, like a number of states, has a broad injury-related statute of limitations that also applies to medical malpractice lawsuits.
In case your legalese is rusty, a "statute of limitations" sets a time limit on a prospective plaintiff's right to file a lawsuit after suffering some kind of harm. If you try to file the case after the deadline has passed, the court will almost certainly throw it out. In a malpractice case, usually what happens is the doctor or health care entity you are trying to sue points out that the statutory deadline has passed, they file a motion to dismiss the case, the court grants it, and that’s the end of the story. So, it’s crucial to pay attention to the statute of limitations as it applies to your case.
What does the law say in New Jersey? The standard statute of limitations as it applies to a medical malpractice lawsuit gives you two years to get your lawsuit filed, starting from the date the harm was inflicted. That typically means two years from when the alleged medical error occurred, but in some cases it can mean two years from the date on which you discover -- or could reasonably have been expected to discover -- that you were harmed by medical malpractice.
You can find New Jersey’s statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits at New Jersey Statutes section 2A:14-2.
New Jersey also has a special lawsuit filing rule for birth-related medical malpractice. The statute says that these cases "shall be commenced prior to the minor's 13th birthday."
Whenever a medical malpractice lawsuit is filed in New Jersey's civil court system, New Jersey Statutes section 2A:53A-27 says that, within 60 days after the defendant health care provider has filed a response to the lawsuit, the plaintiff (the injured patient or the patient's representative) must provide the defendant with an "affidavit of merit."
In this affidavit, an "appropriate licensed person" (a doctor in the same field as the defendant, for example) must declare under oath that there is "a reasonable probability that the care, skill or knowledge exercised or exhibited in the treatment, practice or work that is the subject of the complaint, fell outside acceptable professional or occupational standards or treatment practices."
In other words, the expert must state a belief that the defendant treated the patient in a manner that did not meet the appropriate medical standard of care under the circumstances, and that there is a valid basis for filing this medical malpractice lawsuit.
A few more important details on the "affidavit of merit" in New Jersey:
A lot of states have laws on the books that limit (or "cap") medical malpractice damages, effectively limiting the amount of money that a successful plaintiff can receive, even after a jury has heard all the evidence at trial and found the defendant liable for medical malpractice.
There is currently no overall cap on compensatory (economic or non-economic) damages in medical malpractice cases in New Jersey. But in any injury case, punitive damages are limited to $350,000 or five times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. This law is codified at New Jersey Statutes section 2A:15-5.14.
Keep in mind that punitive damages are pretty rare in a medical malpractice lawsuit, and in New Jersey they require proof that the defendant acted with "actual malice" or a "wanton and willful disregard" of whether or not someone would be harmed or injured.
Something to keep an eye on: A few years ago, a New Jersey Assembly session bill was introduced that would cap non-economic damages at $250,000 in medical malpractice cases. Non-economic damages include compensation for things like the plaintiff’s pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, stress, anxiety, and other effects of the defendant’s medical negligence. About half of U.S. states have placed a cap on these kinds of damages in med mal cases, and New Jersey may follow suit, so stay tuned.
If you're looking for more specifics on New Jersey'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.