A medical malpractice lawsuit can get pretty complicated. That's true in every state, Utah included. Legal issues and medical evidence can get very complex very quickly, and a medical malpractice plaintiff (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. Not only that, but state laws limit the amount of compensation a successful plaintiff can receive in court. In this article, we'll look at some of the most important laws related to medical malpractice claims in Utah.
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.
Like a lot of states, Utah has a dedicated statute of limitations that applies to medical malpractice lawsuits. This law can be found at Utah Code section 78B-3-404, which says: "A malpractice action against a health care provider shall be commenced within two years after the plaintiff or patient discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered the injury, whichever first occurs." So, if the malpractice is not known of right away, the case must be filed within two years of the date on which it is actually (or could reasonably be) discovered by the plaintiff.
Utah's medical malpractice statute of limitations goes on to set a larger, catch-all deadline (known as a "statute of repose") declaring that no such action shall be brought once four years have passed since the medical error occurred. But there are two kinds of cases where this larger four-year deadline does not apply: those where a foreign object was left in the patient's body, and those where the health care provider concealed the malpractice through fraud. In those situations, once the existence of the malpractice case is discovered, the plaintiff has one year to file the lawsuit.
Before an injured patient can file a medical malpractice lawsuit, Utah Code section 78B-3-412 requires the patient to provide each health care provider with 90 days' notice of the intent to start the case. This notice must include a number of details set out in the statute, including:
Within 60 days of sending the "notice of intent," the patient must also file a request for "prelitigation panel review" of the claim with the state's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
The panel's deliberations are confidential, and its decision nonbinding. Once the panel issues its decision, all prelitigation requirements will have been met, and the lawsuit can be filed.
The rules are spelled out at Utah Code sections 78B-3-416 and 78B-3-418. (Note: The above section provides only a simplified summary of Utah's procedural requirements for medical malpractice lawsuits. For the specifics, and for legal advice that's tailored to your specific situation, it might be time to talk with an experienced Utah medical malpractice lawyer.)
Some state laws require a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case to file an "affidavit of merit" before the lawsuit can proceed. An affidavit of merit typically must state that a qualified health care provider has reviewed the patient's case and determined that the defendant health care provider's conduct did not meet the appropriate medical standard of care.
Utah has a statute on the books (at Utah Code section 78B-3-423) requiring affidavits of merit in certain situations. However, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the law is unconstitutional. Under that ruling, affidavits of merit are no longer required before a medical malpractice case can proceed. (Vega v. Jordan Valley Medical Center, LP, 449 P.3d 31 (2019).)
Like most U.S. states, Utah has a law that limits or "caps" the amount of compensation a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice case. The controversial impact of laws like this is that, even where a plaintiff proves that the defendant committed malpractice—and a jury reaches the same conclusion—the actual amount of damages the plaintiff can be awarded is limited.
Also like most states, Utah's cap applies only to noneconomic damages, limiting those to $450,000 for any medical malpractice case arising after May 15, 2010. You can find the full text of this law at Utah Code section 78B-3-410.
So, what are these all-important "noneconomic damages"? In any injury case, noneconomic damages include compensation for things like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. Noneconomic damages are said to be more "subjective" from plaintiff to plaintiff, and they're not so easy to capture with a dollar amount.
Remember that Utah does not cap economic damages in a medical malpractice case, which typically consist of payment for past and future medical care, reimbursement of lost income, compensation for lost earning capacity, and other financial losses that can be attributed to the malpractice on which the lawsuit is based.