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Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations

Nov 29, 2021

It’s absurd, if not devastating that as many as 4 out of 10 patients get harmed by unsafe medical care, whether primary or outpatient. Although 80% of these cases are preventable, most patients aren’t lucky enough, and may end up with life-long injuries, incapacitation, lost livelihoods, or even worse, die before their time. 

Fortunately, victims of medical malpractice negligence have a legal right to file civil claims against medical practitioners who deviate from standard norms and ethics to cause intentional or unintentional harm. It helps if the victim acts swiftly, given that most states have a time limit for filing medical malpractice cases. This is what is prevalently referred to as the statute of limitations. 

The statute of limitations is a legislative act depicting the time frame in which a plaintiff is allowed to initiate legal proceedings against the defendant. In most cases, this duration can be between 1 and 3 years from the date of injury, but it eventually depends on the state in question. Failure to file a claim within this time frame forces the civil court to throw out the case, stating it time-barred.

BUT THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS!

Generally, the statute of limitations will begin from the day the victim suffered injuries. However, the law will permit claims made past this limit based on the date of discovery and statute of repose.

Date of Discovery

While many patients will experience the consequences of the negligent act right away, some victims may develop complications a couple of months or a few years later. In such cases, the statute of limitations comes into play on the date of discovery, which is subject to the continuous treatment doctrine. 

The date of discovery part of the statute of limitations is a time limit where the clock starts ticking from the time a victim of medical malpractice becomes aware of an injury.

Take this practical example.

Let’s say medical professionals left a piece of medical hardware in your body after surgery and you did not experience any symptoms for 1 year. The time limit to bring a medical malpractice claim would only start counting down when you were made aware of the hardware left in your body. Sometimes, however, there are exceptions to this time limit.

One of the most common exceptions is the continuous treatment doctrine. This is a rule that applies to people that have received ongoing follow-up treatment from the same doctor who made the original medical error.

It is an important exception since victims of medical malpractice are not expected to sue the doctor who is treating them at the time, since this could prompt them to discontinue or provide substandard treatment. Furthermore, it is assumed that the patient completely trusts the medical professional’s treatment techniques and is in no position to question them. Therefore, the continuous treatment doctrine delays the countdown of the statute of limitations until the victim no longer receives treatment from the doctor.

If a patient receives treatment for the same problem from a new doctor, the continuous treatment doctrine stops applying and the countdown for the statute of limitations begins. This countdown starts even if you were to go back to the doctor who made the original mistake. This means that if you go to see a different doctor for the same issue, the new period for the statute of limitations starts over again.  

Statute of Repose

The statute of repose is the maximum amount of time that can pass before you are no longer allowed to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit.

This limits your ability to bring a lawsuit even if you have not discovered the injury, and even if you have been receiving continued treatment from the doctor responsible for the negligent acts. Usually, the statute of repose is 5 to 7 years, but, in some states, it can be as short as 3 years. 

Because of these time limitations, it is important to have your case evaluated as quickly as possible. Even if you don’t have all the medical records or other relevant information in hand, understanding the statute of limitations is often the first step to finding out if you have a potential lawsuit.

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