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Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations Explained

Since medical malpractice is a legal cause of action, you or someone you know may have been injured during a medical procedure. And now, you want to understand how much time you have to bring a lawsuit for their negligence. The short answer is as soon as possible. 

But first, let's understand what medical malpractice involves. Medical malpractice is when a hospital, doctor, nurse, or any medical professional's actions or acts of omission falls below the expected standard of care, and the patient suffers harm. Of course, medical staff and facilities are expected to uphold the norms of practice in the medical field, so when deviations occur, people get hurt. But there are medical malpractice statutes of limitation in place in every state. 

Medical malpractice limitations 

A statute of limitations is a law that puts a limit on the time you have to bring your case before the courts to get compensation for your injuries. Medical malpractice limitations are dependent on the type of case and the state where you intend to pursue litigation. The time limit can be as little as one- or two years and as long as ten years. 

In most cases, the clock starts running on the exact date the malpractice allegedly took place. There are exceptions which we will detail further on. However, bringing your case within the statute of limitations is critical as courts will almost certainly dismiss it if it doesn't fall within that time frame. Filing the medical malpractice complaint in civil court begins the lawsuit in earnest. 

Why are there medical malpractice limitations? 

Statutes of limitations in civil law date way back to early Roman times and form the basis of how courts operate today. In essence, the statute is enacted to protect people that are presumed innocent. Logic holds that if a person has a valid case, they will pursue it in court diligently. However, limitations also exist because evidence can be lost, witnesses may disappear, and memories fade. 

In medical malpractice limitations, it's also held that an individual should not live in constant fear of being sued for an action they may not remember happened if indeed it happened at all. 

Medical malpractice limitations exceptions 

It would be devastating to have harm come to yourself or a loved one and then lose the ability to bring a lawsuit to get compensated for the injuries due to the statute of limitations for medical malpractice. That is why, in some cases, there is an exception to the statute of limitations legal deadline to begin proceedings. The medical malpractice limitations exception is called the "discovery rule," and it applies when an individual is harmed but the harm or injury is discovered later.  

The essence of the discovery rule is the patient was not aware they had a medical malpractice lawsuit because they literally did not know they were harmed or were not reasonably expected to figure out their health care provider caused an injury. The discovery rule is different in every state, and it may extend the statute of limitations a year or two or many years. The discovery rule exception can also depend on the type of case.
 
For example, let's say a patient has an operation, and the surgeon or staff negligently leaves a surgical cloth inside the patient. The patient feels fine after the operation, so he or she has no idea anything is wrong until several years later, when the foreign object begins to cause pain. 

The patient goes to their primary care physician not thinking the pain they are experiencing now has anything to do with their surgery a few years ago. That is until their doctor performs an X-ray revealing the cloth as the culprit. The primary care physician knows the patient only had a single operation, so is confident the only explanation is the surgeon's negligence.  

The discovery rule would allow the clock to begin ticking at the date of this discovery, not the original date of the surgery, thus allowing the patient to recover damages. 
 

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