Anyone who wants to to file a medical malpractice lawsuit in Washington first needs to be aware of the "statute of limitations." This is a state law that sets a strict limit on the amount of time you have to get a lawsuit started in the civil court system. There are different deadlines, depending on the kind of case you want to file.
Like a lot of states, Washington has enacted a specific statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits. You can find the statute at Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.350 (2024). Under this statute, you must file your medical malpractice case within the later of three years after the underlying malpractice was committed, or one year after you discovered (or should have discovered) that you were injured as a result of malpractice.
If you argue that you didn't learn right away that you were harmed by the defendant's medical error, the burden is on you to prove that you didn't know—and you couldn't reasonably have known—about the wrongdoing sooner.
There are a few situations that will "toll" Washington's malpractice statute of limitations—keep the "clock" from running, in other words. If your injury is caused by a foreign object left inside your body after a medical procedure, or the medical provider commits fraud or intentionally conceals the medical error, you have one year after you learn about the fraud, concealment, or foreign object to file your lawsuit.
The statute of limitations is tolled when the injured patient is younger than 18 years old, is so disabled that they can't understand the legal proceedings, or is imprisoned and awaiting sentencing.
Finally, when any party to the dispute makes a sincere, written request for mediation before a malpractice lawsuit is filed, the statute of limitations will be tolled for one year in order to allow time for the mediation.
Washington used to have an outside time limit, called a "statute of repose," on medical malpractice claims. This statute applied when a person argued that they didn't know they were harmed by a doctor's negligence, or that some other exception to the statute of limitations gave them more time to file. Under this statute of repose, a medical malpractice lawsuit had to be filed within eight years from the date of the malpractice or it was barred.
In Bennett v. United States, 539 P.3d 361 (Wash. 2023), the Washington Supreme Court ruled that this statute of repose violated Washington's state constitution. Even though the statute still can be found in Washington's statutory code, it can no longer be enforced.
By now you're probably wondering what happens if you try to file your medical malpractice lawsuit after Washington's filing deadline has passed. In that situation, the defendant will almost certainly ask the court to dismiss the case, and the court will grant the motion. Once that happens, that's the end of your lawsuit. Get more details on the statute of limitations in medical malpractice cases.