Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Laws

If you are thinking of pursuing a claim of medical malpractice, it is likely that you have suffered a significant injury at the hands of your health care provider. This type of litigation can be incredibly nuanced, the complexities of which require skilled and experienced legal counsel. If you or a loved one has been a victim of medical malpractice, you have a specified time period in which you are able to bring a claim. If you fail to file a claim within that timeframe, it is quite possible that you will not be able to do so at any point and you will not be permitted to recover for your pain and suffering. This page is intended to provide a brief overview of what you may expect if you are pursuing a medical malpractice claim in Massachusetts; however, the best course of action to take if you are considering doing so is to consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney licensed in Massachusetts. An experienced attorney will be able to guide you through the specifics of the laws that are more finely tuned with the details of your medical malpractice claim and explore whether your claim has the requisite merit to be filed in court.

Suing for Medical Malpractice in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, a medical malpractice case may be brought by an injured patient against any licensed health care provider, including a medical doctor, nurse, physical therapist, and mental health care professional. The law in Massachusetts places a set time period for which a medical malpractice claim may be filed. If named as a defendant in a medical malpractice case, the law in Massachusetts allows the defense of modified comparative negligence to be used which allows a damage award to be reduced in proportion to the percentage of fault assigned by a court.

When it comes to medical malpractice claims, many cases settle out of court prior to the case advancing to the trial stage of litigation. Massachusetts places a limit on damages that may be awarded to a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case.

How long do I have to file a medical malpractice case in Massachusetts?

The first step in bringing a claim for medical malpractice against a healthcare provider is making certain that you are permitted to do so. The law in Massachusetts mandates that an action for personal injury must be filed within three years from the date the cause of action accrues. [1] This time limitation is known as the “statute of limitations” which refers to the period from the time an injury occurs or is discovered to the final date on which a medical malpractice lawsuit can be filed. If you decide to bring an action after the statute of limitations have passed, a court can dismiss your case and you will be left with no other legal option to pursue justice. The reason behind placing a time limitation on when you may file a medical malpractice claim is based on the notion that a court is interested in credible evidence in order to establish a cause of action. As time passes, it is possible that the crucial evidence that would initially aid your case would become less compelling, making your case all the more difficult to prove.

It is important to note that Massachusetts law states that the statute of limitations clock does not begin to run until your injury has been, or should have been, discovered. This rule is known as the “discovery rule.” Once you discover or should have discovered, your injury, the two-year window to file your lawsuit begins. However, you may not bring an action for medical malpractice more than three years from the time date that the alleged malpractice took place, regardless of when you actually discovered your injury.

If the injured party was a minor child under the age of six years old, the law allows the medical practice claim to be filed any time prior to the child reaching nine years of age. [2]

In Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Cases, who is Responsible?

In Massachusetts, you may bring a medical malpractice lawsuit for an injury you suffered against a licensed healthcare provider based upon their negligence, misconduct, errors or omissions.

Those that can be held responsible due to being included in the definition of a “health care provider” include a person, corporation, facility or institution licensed by the commonwealth to provide health care or professional services as a physician, hospital, clinic or nursing home, dentist, registered or licensed nurse, optometrist, podiatrist, chiropractor, physical therapist, psychologist, social worker, or acupuncturist, or an officer, employee or agent thereof acting in the course and scope of his employment. [3]

When bringing a medical malpractice claim against a healthcare provider, the burden of proof rests with you and you must prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the alleged actions of the health care provider represented a breach of the prevailing professional standard of care for that health care provider. The prevailing professional standard of care for a health care provider is the level of care, skill, and treatment which, in light of all relevant surrounding circumstances, is recognized as acceptable and appropriate by reasonably prudent similar health care providers.

What if I am partially to blame? Can I Still Recover Money for Massachusetts Medical Malpractice?

Massachusetts, along with 32 other states recognizes the doctrine of modified comparative fault. The doctrine allows a court to assign a percentage of blame to each party involved in the lawsuit and any damage award is reduced in proportion to your apportioned fault. Of the 33 states that follow a modified version of comparative fault, Massachusetts is one of 22 states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming) that follow a 51% rule where you are only able to recover damages for an injury if a court determines that your apportionment of fault for your own injury is 50% or less. [4] In other words, if you wish to recover a monetary award for your injury, you must not have contributed more to the injury that the health care provider that you are suing.

For example, imagine you become sick after ingesting medication that was prescribed to you by your doctor. A court finds that your sickness was caused by a combination of a disclosed allergy and food that was against the doctor's instructions that you consumed while on the medication. The court ultimately finds that the doctor should never have prescribed that specific type of medication due to your allergy and assigns the defendant 50% of the blame while assigning 50% of the blame to you for not following the doctor's instructions when you consumed food that was not permitted while on the medication. Since you were assigned 50% of the blame, you would be able to recover a portion of damages because you were not found to have been 51% or more at fault for your injury. If the court awarded $100,000 in damages, you would be able to recover $50,000 after the apportioned 50% of fault is applied.

Some states do not adhere to a modified form of comparative fault and instead follow a doctrine of pure comparative fault where a plaintiff is able to recover for damages even if they are found to have been 99% at fault for their injury. An argument against the adoption of pure comparative fault is that it is contrary to the nature and purpose of the legal system to allow a plaintiff who has substantially contributed to their own injury to recover damages for any portion of their loss. This is a reason why Massachusetts decided to adopt a modified system.

Are there medical malpractice recovery caps in Massachusetts?

If you are ultimately successful in your medical malpractice claim, you will be awarded damages in accordance with the doctrine of comparative fault. The term “damages” is synonymous with a monetary award which is used to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries they sustained as a result of the plaintiff's negligence. There are two types of damage awards you may receive in Massachusetts:

Compensatory Damages are meant to place you in the position you would have been in had your injury never occurred as they are meant to compensate you for your injury. Compensatory damages are usually split into two categories – economic damages and non-economic damages.

Economic damages reimburse you for out-of-pocket items that can easily be accounted for like:

  • Medical bills
  • Prescription fees
  • Nursing costs
  • Physical therapy costs
  • Wages lost from an inability to work

Non-economic damages compensate you for occurrences that are hard to properly value. For example:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Future medical costs
  • Loss of future wages

The law in Massachusetts limits the amount of non-economic damages that you may be awarded to no more than $500,000. However, if you suffered a substantial or permanent loss of a bodily function or physical disfigurement as a result of the medical malpractice, the $500,000 damage cap is lifted. [5]

Punitive Damages are different from compensatory damages in that they are intended to punish the defendant rather than provide compensation to you. In Massachusetts, punitive damages are only permitted if granted by statute. Claims of medical malpractice qualify for punitive damage awards if it can be proven that the defendant's conduct was outrageous due to a reckless indifference to your rights or the rights of others.

Expert witness reporting and testimony

The testimony given by an expert witness is invaluable to you if you are bringing a claim of medical malpractice. It is the expert that will be able to establish that the defendant either lacked or failed to exercise the requisite degree of knowledge or skill held by healthcare providers in their field and that as a proximate result of the lack of knowledge or skill or the failure to exercise this degree of care, you suffered injuries that would not otherwise have been incurred.

A witness will be considered to qualify as an expert if:

(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. [6]

Are some parties immune from medical negligence cases?

In Massachusetts, the law provides immunity from litigation to public employees. This means that if a public employee committed professional negligence, the only way you can recover for your injury is to bring a claim against the state. To bring a claim against the state, you must provide notice of your claim in writing within two years of the negligence occurring. [7]

If your claim against the state is successful, your damages are limited to $100,000.

Settling medical malpractice cases in Massachusetts

Many medical malpractice cases settle out of court. For this reason, many states have enacted laws that require some type of mandatory pretrial mediation or screening panel and Massachusetts is no different.

Every medical malpractice lawsuit filed in the state of Massachusetts must be reviewed by a tribunal. The tribunal is required to be made up of a single justice of the superior court, a physician licensed to practice medicine in the commonwealth, and an attorney authorized to practice law in the commonwealth. [8]

The tribunal proceeding is required to take place within 15 days after the defendant's answer has been filed with the court. Once the tribunal convenes, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to present proof that the medical malpractice occurred. The tribunal will then determine if the offered evidence is sufficient enough to raise a legitimate question of liability appropriate enough to reach trial. If the tribunal finds for the defendant, it does not necessarily mean that the plaintiff's case is stopped in its tracks. The plaintiff may continue to push their claim to the trial stage of litigation if a $6,000 bond is filed with the clerk of the court.

Litigating medical negligence cases in Massachusetts

A claim for medical malpractice in Massachusetts is initiated by preparing a Complaint that must be served on the named defendants in your case. The defendant is then required to file a document that is called the Answer which provides responses to the allegations you made in the Complaint and will also list the affirmative defenses that will be used.

Initiating the Case

If the parties to a medical malpractice lawsuit are unable to reach a settlement, the claim will proceed to civil court. In Massachusetts, a civil action begins by filing a Complaint with the clerk of the court. A Complaint should include:

  • The proper name of every plaintiff and of every defendant.
  • A statement of facts constituting the cause of action.
  • A demand for relief.

A civil Summons is also required and notifies the court and the defendant that you are filing a lawsuit. The Summons must be signed by the clerk of the court and must then, along with the Complaint, be delivered to all named defendants in the lawsuit. After being properly served with the Complaint and civil Summons, all of the named defendants must file an Answer within 20 days. [9]

Preparing for Litigation

After the Complaint, Summons and Answer have been filed in the appropriate court, the parties may begin the discovery process. Discovery is a procedure designed to allow disclosure between both sides of a lawsuit which allows both sides to know what to expect at trial.

In a medical malpractice case, medical records and doctor's notes are usually items that will be requested for disclosure.

Each side may obtain discovery by:

  • Deposition
  • Written interrogatories
  • Production of documents
  • Physical or mental examinations
  • Requests for admission [10]

A deposition is a fact-finding tool where the opposing side is permitted to ask questions of the witness being deposed who is under oath. A deposition does not usually take place in a courtroom. Instead, the questions are asked in an attorney's office where attorneys are present in order to help advise their client on how to answer certain questions as well as to make objections if necessary. Through the question and answer session, opposing counsel will try to find out what facts the opposing party believes to be true and what facts they may be exaggerating. A court reporter is usually present during a deposition.

Written interrogatories are written questions sent to the opposing side that request answers which will be used to establish the facts that will be presented once the case goes to trial.

Production of documents is a request made to the opposing side whereby tangible documents are sought. In a medical malpractice case, an example of a request for production of documents would be a request to view the medical records of the claimant.

Request for admission is a set of statements drafted by one side and sent to the other where the receiver must answer in the affirmative or the negative. In a medical malpractice case, an example of a request for admission would be a statement like, “the defense has no evidence to support a basis that the claimant caused their own injuries.” If the defense answers in the negative, the claimant would know that the defense is intending to proffer some type of evidence in an attempt to prove that they were at least partially to blame for their own injury.

In a medical malpractice case, it is possible that you will need to be medically evaluated in order to corroborate that the injury being complained of does in fact exist. You must comply with any request unless you file a written objection stating the reason or reasons for your objection.

Pretrial Litigation

The law in Massachusetts does not require the parties attend a form of alternative dispute resolution like arbitration or mediation but it does require all of the involved parties to appear before a tribunal that will hear the presented evidence and determine whether your claim has merit or if it is frivolous.

Trial

During a trial, all admissible evidence will be presented to the 'trier of fact' who is a person or group of people who hear testimony and review evidence in order to issue a ruling in favor of one party or another. There are two potential triers of fact in a personal injury case in the state of Massachusetts: a judge or a jury. In Massachusetts, the parties may stipulate that the jury shall consist of any number less than twelve, or less than six in the District Court, or that a verdict or a finding of a stated majority of the jurors shall be taken as the verdict or finding of the jury. [11]

To choose a jury, a procedure known as “voir dire” is conducted whereby attorneys ask potential jurors questions in order to determine what biases the panel members may have in favor or against the cast being brought before the court. Once this process is completed, both sides will decide what parties they would like to remove from juror consideration. The law in Massachusetts allows each side to have four peremptory challenges where jurors may be eliminated from consideration. [12] Once each side finishes announcing the parties they wish to have removed, the jury is impaneled.

In Massachusetts, a person is considered to be qualified to be a juror if they are:

  • a citizen of the United States;
  • a resident of Massachusetts for more than 50% of the year
  • at least 18 years of age; and
  • of sound mind

After the jury selection is completed, opening statements will begin. An opening statement is an outline of what each side thinks the evidence will be and is offered to help jurors understand and follow the evidence during the trial.

From there, the plaintiff will begin to argue their case. The plaintiff will call witnesses at this time and each witness will be questioned by the plaintiff's attorney and then likely cross-examined by the

opposing side's attorney. After all the plaintiff's witnesses have been called and evidence has been presented, the plaintiff will rest their case.

Once the plaintiff finishes the presentation of their case, the defense will begin to present their evidence. The defense will present the physician's side of the case and attempt to show why negligence was not involved in creating the patient's injury.

Once both sides have argued their cases, closing arguments will take place. During closing arguments, each side's attorney will explain to the jury what they believe the evidence proves. In the final argument, each side will summarize the facts that were presented during the trial and attempt to show how they support their client's case. The closing arguments allow the jury to better understand the case.

Finally, jury instructions are then given by the judge to the jury and the jury is then free to deliberate and come back with a finding.

Appeal

Many times the losing side in a medical malpractice case will opt to appeal a decision from the lower court. An appeal is a legal proceeding which allows a higher court to review the decision rendered by a lower court. Most appeals taking place in Massachusetts must be filed within 30 days from notice of the judgment or decision. [13]

How to find the best Massachusetts Medical Malpractice Lawyer for your case

Achieving the best possible outcome in your medical malpractice case is often contingent upon securing the best possible counsel to represent you in your action. Finding skilled legal representation can take your mind off of the legalese involved in a lawsuit so that you can focus on healing your injury.

One of the main motivating factors in bringing a medical malpractice lawsuit against a health care provider that caused your injury is to receive proper compensation for the pain, suffering and losses you have likely endured. Without a damage award, it is likely that you would be forced to go out-of-pocket in order to help heal your injury. Therefore, it is easy to see why hiring proper legal counsel is of the utmost importance.

When looking to hire legal representation, it is important to remember that the attorney will be working for you – not the other way around. The process of hiring an attorney or law firm should be on your timetable, not theirs. Do not let an attorney or firm pressure you into hiring them on the spot. In fact, you should interview more than one law firm to make sure that the counsel you end up with is the right fit. Once you have several candidates lined up, weigh the pros and cons of each and decide which you feel most comfortable with.

When looking for legal representation, you will want to search for an attorney or firm that has a wealth of knowledge and experience in cases that are similar to your own. Do not be afraid to ask an attorney or law firm their level of experience. It may also be wise to ask if they have ever litigated a case similar to yours and whether or not they were successful. If they have had experience with cases with facts similar to yours, they may be able to give insight into how long the case may last and what your expected damages may be. They can also inform you of the estimated cost of litigation. Do not be afraid to ask about their fee structure and if they prefer to litigate on an hourly or contingency rate.

You may want to get a feel for if you actually like the attorney or law firm that you are interviewing. While you do not have to be best friends with your legal counsel – in fact, it is best not to be – you need to decide if the person or people representing you are people you want to be in constant contact with day in and day out. Communication between attorneys and clients is incredibly important. You should also ask your potential attorney or firm how they communicate with their clients. People communicate in different ways which can lead to frustration if the methods used between the parties do not mesh. Your attorney should adapt their communication methods to fit your needs. If the attorney or law firm is unwilling to communicate with you the way you prefer, move on and find representation that will.

Some notable medical malpractice law decisions from Massachusetts

These cases represent awards to plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases in Massachusetts. These results are in no way a guarantee that subsequent, similar, cases will see the same results.

Larkin v. Johnston

The plaintiff, Andrea Larkin, was admitted to Dedham Medical after having experienced dizzy spells after running the Boston Marathon. An MRI and a CAT scan were performed by Dr. Jehane Johnston and the results showed brain abnormalities, which meant the doctor was required to place the plaintiff on a special list of patients with certain medical conditions that other doctors can access.

However, the plaintiff was not placed on the list and when she later became pregnant, her obstetrician was not aware of her brain issues as a result. When it came time to give birth, the plaintiff became paralyzed from a stroke that she suffered a few hours after delivery.

Following the birth of her child, the plaintiff spent a total of 18 months in hospitals and rehabilitation programs.

The plaintiff filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dedham Medical Associates and Dr. Jehane Johnston. The plaintiff argued in court that had Dr. Johnston placed her on the medical condition list, a caesarean section would have been ordered when she gave birth which would have prevented her stroke. She claimed roughly $4 million in damages for medical costs and further sought damages for future medical costs/life care plan, her total lost wages, and pain and suffering.

The defense claimed that the pregnancy itself, not pushing, caused the plaintiff's stroke.

The jury agreed with the plaintiff and awarded $35.4 million in damages.

Price-Brown v. Ambrus

Eric Price underwent a tonsil procedure to correct a case of sleep apnea. However, Mr. Price died a few days after Dr. Peter Ambrus performed the tonsillectomy due to heavy bleeding. Mr. Price's wife subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit.

The plaintiff's lawsuit alleged that Dr. Ambrus provided poor advice in recommending that Mr. Price undergo the surgical procedure since his sleep apnea was mild in nature and other, safer, procedures were available to correct the condition.

At trial, the defense claimed that adults have bigger arteries and vessels than children, making tonsillectomy procedures riskier for adults. However, both children and adults are at risk of complications and injuries, such as excessive bleeding, surgical burns, airway fire injuries, and tissue injuries.

After deliberation, the jury awarded the plaintiff $13 million in damages.

Footnotes

[1] Mass Ann. Laws ch. 260 § 4

[2] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 231, § 60D

[3] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 149, § 187(a)

[4] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 231, § 85

[5] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 231, § 60H

[6] Massachusetts Guide to Evidence Article VII, § 702

[7] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 258, § 4

[8] Mass. Ann. Laws ch. 231, § 60(B)

[9] Mass Civil Procedure Rule 12

[10] Mass Civil Procedure Rule 26

[11] Mass Civil Procedure Rule 48

[12] The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Chapter 234 § 29

[13] Appellate Procedure Rule 4(a)

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