Medical malpractice claims are subject to statutes of limitations and repose in Massachusetts

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Plaintiff loses appeal for injury-at-birth claim

Sometimes after a lawsuit is commenced, facts will emerge through the discovery process identifying new claims or additional defendants. When that happens, under procedural rules, a Plaintiff can file a motion to amend the complaint and add facts, parties or causes of action. In Massachusetts, such amendments to the complaint are liberally allowed and relate back to the original pleading. This means that any changes, even those adding or changing a party, are deemed to have been filed at the time the original complaint was filed. Such relation back is especially important when the plaintiff discovers additional parties or claims after the governing statute of limitations has expired. The provision makes the subsequent amendments timely. However, in cases where a statute of repose applies, in order to relate back to the original complaint, the motion to amend must still be filed with the court within the time allowed by statute.

Statutes of limitations and repose

Under Massachusetts law, medical malpractice claims are subject to both a statute of limitations of three years from the time the cause of action accrues and a statute of repose of seven years from the date of the act or omission that caused the injury. The statute of limitations may be tolled in certain circumstances, such as disability, minority, or for other equitable reasons. In contrast, the only exception to the statute of repose in a medical malpractice case is for “the leaving of a foreign object in the body.”

Plaintiff files medical practice claim

In one recent case, a minor plaintiff filed a claim for medical malpractice stemming from injuries received at birth. One month before her seventh birthday, pursuant to court rule, the plaintiff served the existing parties with a motion to amend the complaint to add the employers of the medical providers as defendants under a theory of vicarious liability. However, the plaintiff did not file the unopposed motion with the court until four days after the statute of repose. The new defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing that the claims against them were time-barred. The plaintiff argued that the seven-year statute did not apply to claims for vicarious liability and that service of the motion to amend under the court rule commenced the action for purposes of the statute of repose.

In affirming the trial court’s judgment dismissing the new defendants, the Appeals Court noted that the derivative action against the employers arose from the professional services or health care rendered by their agents and fell within the purview of a medical malpractice claim such that the seven-year statute of repose applied. The court also confirmed that there is no equitable tolling of the statute of repose except as specifically provided by statute, and that, notwithstanding court rules that require service prior to filing, “in order to satisfy the statute of repose, the motion for leave to amend must be filed within the statute of repose period.”

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