How Long Do I Have To File a Wrongful Death Claim Based on Medical Malpractice?
Under Maine’s Wrongful Death Act, the family of a deceased victim has two years from the date of a victim’s death to bring a wrongful death claim.
By contrast, a plaintiff typically—though not always—has three years from the date of negligence to bring a medical malpractice claim.
But what about when it comes to medical malpractice claims where a patient has died? How are these two different rules reconciled?
The Maine Law Court addressed this issue in Butler v. Killoran, 714 A.2d 129 (Me. 1998). There, the Court determined that the statute of limitations governing medical malpractice cases (three years from the date of negligence) trumped the statute of limitations for wrongful death cases (two years from the decedent’s death). In other words, when a person dies due to medical malpractice, the family has three years from the date of the negligence to properly initiate the claim.
At first glance, it may seem like this is a clear victory for plaintiffs. Sometimes it is. But not always. Consider the facts in Butler. There, the family of the deceased patient claimed a radiologist was negligent for failing to see a brain aneurysm on an MRI in August of 1992. The aneurysm burst, killing the patient, more than two years later, in October 1994. The patient’s family initiated the case in September 1996.
In Butler, it was the family of the patient who argued that the two-year statute of limitations in Maine’s Wrongful Death Act should apply. Remember that that statute of limitations begins to run at the time of the death. Had the Court agreed with the family, the case would have been permitted to proceed, as the case was started slightly less than two years after the patient’s death. Paradoxically, however, because the three-year statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases applied, the case wasn’t filed in time, and was dismissed.
Sometimes, the statute of limitations in a given case is straightforward. But you shouldn’t assume you know the statute of limitations without first talking to a lawyer. The statute of limitations may be more complicated than it first appears.