Rhode Island Medical Malpractice Laws

Get familiar with Rhode Island's medical malpractice statute of limitations, and what an injured patient needs to prove in order to prevail in this kind of lawsuit.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

A medical malpractice lawsuit is a complicated undertaking. That's true in every state, Rhode Island included. It's not just because legal issues and medical evidence can get quite complex in these kinds of cases. It's also because a medical malpractice plaintiff (the injured patient -- or the patient's legal representative) must comply with the statutory time limits for filing the lawsuit, and typically needs to work with one or more medical experts in order to prove his or her case.

In this article, we'll look at the statute of limitations filing deadline for Rhode Island medical malpractice lawsuits, who qualifies as an expert witness in these kinds of cases, and laws related to certain liability arguments.

Rhode Island's Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Like lawmakers in a lot of states, Rhode Island legislators have passed a statute of limitations that applies specifically to medical malpractice lawsuits. First though, a quick refresher for readers whose "legalese" is a little rusty: a statute of limitations is a law that puts a firm limit on the amount of time you have to go to court and file a lawsuit after you have suffered some type of injury or loss. There are different deadlines depending on the kind of lawsuit you want to file.

Rhode Island's statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits can be found at Rhode Island General Laws section 9-1-14.1, and it gives a potential medical malpractice plaintiff three years to get the case filed in the state's civil court system. Usually the statute of limitations starts running "from the time of the occurrence of the incident which gave rise to the action," meaning the date on which the medical error was committed.

But Rhode Island makes an exception for cases "which could not in the exercise of reasonable diligence be discoverable at the time of the occurrence of the incident which gave rise to the action." In that situation, the three-year clock starts running at the time when "the malpractice should, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, have been discovered."

Keep in mind that if you did not discover right away that you were injured as a result of a health care provider's malpractice, as the plaintiff you have the burden of proving that you couldn't have discovered it even through the "exercise of reasonable diligence." Only then will you be able to rely on this "discovery" exception.

Finally, what if you try to file your Rhode Island medical malpractice lawsuit after the 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 is the end of your lawsuit. So it's crucial to pay attention to the deadline.

Using Expert Witnesses to Prove Medical Malpractice in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, as in most states, proving malpractice usually requires the testimony of a medical expert. So, it's important to understand who is qualified to serve as an expert witness in a medical malpractice lawsuit. That question can be answered by Rhode Island General Laws 9-19-41, which says that "only those persons who by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education qualify as experts in the field of the alleged malpractice shall be permitted to give expert testimony as to the alleged malpractice."

So, the Rhode Island judge presiding over the medical malpractice lawsuit will consider a number of factors in determining whether a proposed expert witness (for either side of the case) has enough experience and familiarity with the medical procedure, condition, or treatment at issue in the lawsuit to offer an "expert" opinion. That includes the proposed expert's:

  • professional qualifications
  • practical training, and
  • medical practice specialties.

"Informed Consent" and "Res Ipsa Loquitur" in Rhode Island Medical Malpractice Cases

Rhode Island has a few special laws related to proving medical malpractice in a civil lawsuit.

First, if the lawsuit rests on the absence of the patient's "informed consent"— the health care provider's "reasonable disclosure of all known material risks" to the patient, when it comes to a procedure or course of treatment—under Rhode Island General Laws 9-19-32, the judge will weigh all evidence and credibility of witnesses to determine whether "informed consent" is actually a valid issue. Only if the judge finds that "reasonable minds might fairly come to different conclusions" on the applicability of the issue will the jury be allowed to consider the "informed consent" argument.

Next, if the medical malpractice lawsuit rests on a "res ipsa loquitur" argument—a legal concept meaning "the medical error speaks for itself," and creating a presumption that the health care provider made some kind of mistake in treating the patient—under Rhode Island General Laws 9-19-33, the judge will weigh the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses and will only allow the jury to consider application of "res ipsa loquitur" if "reasonable minds might fairly come to different conclusions" as to whether negligence should be inferred based on the circumstances. (Note: A good example of when "res ipsa loquitor" might apply in a medical malpractice case is one where a surgical instrument was left inside a patient.)

No Medical Malpractice Damages Cap in Rhode Island

Unlike many states, Rhode Island has not passed a law that limits (or "caps") damages in medical malpractice cases. So there is no statutory limit on the amount of money that a successful plaintiff can receive, after a jury has found the defendant health care provider(s) liable for medical malpractice.

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

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