Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a written opinion in a medical malpractice case that required the court to discuss the continuing course of treatment doctrine as it applies to late-filed medical malpractice cases. The court ultimately determined that the doctrine does apply under Massachusetts law, but it only tolls a statute of limitations up to the point at which the allegedly negligent physician stops treating the patient.
The Continuing Course of Treatment Doctrine
Medical malpractice cases must be filed within a certain period of time, or by law, the court must dismiss the case. These time limits are called statutes of limitations. Generally speaking, a statute of limitations begins when the cause of actions accrues, meaning when the negligent medical act is performed. However, in some cases, a patient may not realize that they have been a victim of medical malpractice until months or years later.
In situations in which a patient does not immediately realize their injuries, there is an exception to the statute of limitations, and it may be extended or “tolled.” Under this exception, a statute of limitations will not start until the plaintiff realizes that they have been injured.
The continuing course of treatment doctrine is another exception to the strict application of a statute of limitations. Under the doctrine, a plaintiff’s case will not accrue (meaning the statute of limitations will not begin to run) until the allegedly negligent physician stops caring for the patient. The idea behind the doctrine is that a negligent physician who continues to treat the patient may not openly disclose that he has made an error. Instead, a physician would be incentivized to delay reporting an error to the patient until the statute of limitations expired. Thus, the continuing course of treatment doctrine makes sure that a physician’s failure to disclose a problem to a patient does not limit the patient’s right to recovery.
The Appellate Court’s Ruling
In last year’s ruling, Massachusetts high court officially adopted the continuing course of treatment doctrine. However, the doctrine was not applied under the specific facts of that case because the case was filed after the three-year statute of limitations, even after the time limit was extended by the continuing course of treatment doctrine.
The plaintiffs argued that the defendant doctor’s colleagues still treated their son after the defendant doctor had ceased treatment and that the statute of limitations should be tolled while the treatment was ongoing. However, the court declined to extend the doctrine to apply to the care provided by the negligent doctor’s colleagues.
Have You Been a Victim of Medical Malpractice?
If you or a loved one has recently been a victim of medical malpractice in Massachusetts, you may be entitled to monetary compensation. The skilled personal injury and medical malpractice attorneys at the Law Office of Robert C. Shea have extensive experience handling all types of personal injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and product liability cases. Attorney Robert C. Shea prides himself in taking a client-centered approach to his representation. Free consultations are available. Call 508-506-5681 to set up a meeting with an attorney.