Most people are aware that there are time limits for filing lawsuits. These laws, called statutes of limitations, are intended to encourage people to bring claims while memories are fresh and before witnesses or documentary evidence disappear, as well as to allow potential defendants to rest easy after a some passage of time, knowing they won’t be called upon to defend themselves over something that occurred many years earlier. But figuring out what the statute of limitations is in any particular case isn’t always simple.
In most personal injury cases in Massachusetts, including medical malpractice cases, the statute of limitations is three years. But it’s not safe for a potential plaintiff to sit back and assume he has three years, because there are some exceptions where a shorter period might apply, mostly depending on the status of the defendant, particularly governmental agencies. It’s also not good to wait until the last minute, because most lawyers take some time to evaluate cases carefully before filing suit, and many won’t take a case if the statute of limitations is about to expire. Certain cases also have notice requirements that must be met before a case can be filed in court.
It’s also not a good idea to assume that, if it’s been longer than three years, it’s automatically too late. There are many circumstances that permit a longer time to file, including the age or mental capacity of the plaintiff, a lack of knowledge that the claim exists, or perhaps even continuing treatment by a health care provider. On the other hand, there are some absolute time limits–called statutes of repose–that apply to virtually every situation, regardless of the plaintiff’s age or lack of awareness. And even these extended periods may vary with the status of the defendants–in most cases, a child may bring a claim within three years of reaching the age of majority, but in medical malpractice cases the period is much shorter.
The take-home message is that determining whether it’s too late to bring a particular claim is a complicated question, that can be answered only by a lawyer who is familiar with the applicable law as well as all the facts.