A bill in the Maine legislature would have the medical malpractice statute of limitations clock start running when a patient discovers the negligence, which could be years after treatment took place. And other states could follow suit with similar bills. What danger does this pose for doctors?

As it stands, the time limit for patients to be able to bring a medical malpractice lawsuit varies by state. The bill that was introduced in Maine would enable patients to bring suits many years after treatment took place. For physicians, this extends their period of liability and could potentially increase the number of lawsuits against them.

“The theory behind a statute of limitations is that states want to provide a reasonable, but not indefinite, amount of time for someone to bring a case to court,” says Patrick T. O’Rourke, Esq, adjunct professor at University of Colorado School of Law.

Without a statute of limitations, people could bring claims many years after the fact, which makes it harder to obtain and preserve evidence, O’Rourke says.

In most cases, it isn’t necessary for a patient to know the full extent of their injury or that their physician acted wrongfully or negligently for the statute of limitations to begin running.

Time of Injury vs Time of Discovery

Most states’ laws dictate that the statute of limitations begins at a set time “after the cause of action accrues.” That means that the clock starts ticking from the date of the procedure, surgery, or treatment. In most states, that time is 2 or 3 years.

This can bar some patients from taking any action at all because the statute of limitations ran out. Because of these hurdles, the proposed bill in Maine would extend the statute of limitations.

Proponents of the bill say that patients would still have 3 years to file suit, it just changes when the clock starts. But opponents feel it could open the door to a limitless system in which people have an indefinite time to sue.

Many states already have discovery rules that extend the statute of limitations when the harm was not immediately obvious to the patient. The legal expectation is that patients who have significant pain or unexpected health conditions will seek medical treatment to investigate what’s wrong. Patients who don’t address the situation promptly are not protected by the discovery rule.

“It is the injured person’s obligation, once learning of the injury, to take action to protect their rights,” says O’Rourke.

Some states have also enacted other claims requirements in medical malpractice cases that are prerequisites for bringing lawsuits that have periods attached to them. For instance, in Florida, parties have 10 days to provide relevant medical records during the investigation period for a malpractice suit, and in Maine, before filing any malpractice action, a plaintiff must file a complaint with a prelitigation screening panel.

Medical Malpractice Statute of Limitations by State

Although each state has a basic statute of limitations, many states also include clauses for discovery rules. For example, in Vermont, in addition to the 3-year statute of limitations, a patient can pursue legal recourse “two years from the date the injury is or reasonably should have been discovered, whichever occurs later, but not later than seven years from the date of the incident.”

In some states, such as Virginia, special extensions apply in cases in which fraud, concealment, or intentional misrepresentation prevented discovery of the injury within the statute of limitations. And in most states, the statute of limitations is much longer for cases in which medical malpractice involves a child, usually at least until the child turns 18.

Statute of Limitations by State

1 Year: California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee

2 Years: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming

2.5 Years: New York

3 Years: Washington DC, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin

4 Years: Minnesota

To Protect Yourself

O’Rourke says that if your state enacts a law that extends the statute of limitations for medical malpractice, there aren’t any proactive changes you need to make in terms of your day-to-day practice of medicine.

“Physicians should continue to provide care that is consistent with the standards of care for their specialty and ensure that the documentation accurately reflects the care they rendered,” he says.

Always be candid and up front about a patient’s condition, O’Rourke says, especially if malpractice is on the table.

“If a physician misleads a patient about the nature or extent of an injury, that could prevent the statute of limitations from beginning to run,” he says. “Being open and honest about an injury doesn’t mean that a physician must admit any fault. The patient is owed timely, accurate, and candid information about their condition.”

Keep Good Records

If the statute of limitations increases, you’ll need to have access to the medical records for as long as the statute is in place, but this shouldn’t have an effect on your records keeping if you’re up to date with HIPAA compliance, says O’Rourke.

“I don’t think an extension of the statute should cause physicians to change their practices, particularly with the retention of medical records, which should be maintained consistently with HIPAA requirements irrespective of the limitations period in a particular state,” he adds.

Keep an Eye on Malpractice Insurance Rates

It’s possible that your malpractice insurance could go up as a result of laws that increase the statute of limitations. But O’Rourke thinks it likely won’t be a significant amount.

He says it’s “theoretically possible” that an increase in a limitations period could result in an increase in your malpractice insurance, since some claims that would otherwise have been barred because of time could then proceed, but the increase would be nominal.

“I would expect any increase to be fairly marginal because the majority of claims will already be accounted for on an actuarial basis,” he says. “I also don’t think that the extension of a limitations period would increase the award of damages in a particular case. The injuries should be the same under either limitations period, so the compensable loss should not increase.”

Anything that makes it easier for patients to recover should increase the cost of professional liability insurance, and vice versa, says Charles Silver, McDonald Endowed Chair in Civil Procedure at University of Texas at Austin School of Law and co-author of Medical Malpractice Litigation: How It Works — Why Tort Reform Hasn’t Helped . But the long-term trend across the country is toward declining rates of liability and declining payouts on claims.

“The likelihood of being sued successfully by a former patient is low, as is the risk of having to pay out of pocket to settle a claim,” he says. In 2022, the number of adverse reports nationally was 38,938, and out of those,10,807 resulted in a payout.

In his research on medical malpractice in Texas, Silver says physicians who carried $1 million in coverage essentially never faced any personal liability on medical malpractice claims. “[This means] that they never had to write a check to a victim,” he says. “Insurers provided all the money. I suspect that the same is true nationwide.”

Key Takeaways

Ultimately, to protect yourself and your practice, you can do the following:

  • Know the statute of limitations and discovery rules for your state.

  • Review your coverage with your insurer to better understand your liability.

  • Keep accurate records for as long as your statute requires.

  • Notify your insurer or risk management department as soon as possible in the event of an adverse outcome with a patient, O’Rourke advises.

    “The most important thing a physician can do to avoid being sued, even when negligent, is to treat patients with kindness and respect,” says Silver. “Patients don’t expect doctors to be perfect, and they rarely sue doctors they like.”

    Rachel Reiff Ellis is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor specializing in health and medicine. She is a regular writer for WebMD and Fortune Well, and her work has appeared in Prevention, Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health, and others.

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