California Medical Malpractice: Statute of Limitations and Award Limits

If you think you might have a viable medical malpractice case in California, you might be wondering about the state laws that might affect your case. Read on to learn more about a few key California medical malpractice laws.

Time Limits for Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in California

All states have very specific deadlines for filing medical malpractice lawsuits -- these time limits are called statutes of limitations, and the rules can be complex because they may contain as many as three or four separate deadlines.

California’s Combined Deadline

The first part of a medical malpractice statute of limitations is usually the standard deadline, which gives victims of medical malpractice a certain number of years within which to file a lawsuit. The second part of the statute of limitations is called the discovery rule -- an exception to the standard deadline in situations where the victim could not reasonably have learned that he/she even had a medical malpractice case.

California combines these two deadlines into one deadline, which states that a medical malpractice lawsuit must be filed no later than three years after the date of injury or one year after the plaintiff discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury (whichever occurs first).

Statute of Limitations for Minor Children

The third part of the statute of limitations is the deadline for minors (children under age eighteen) or their parents or legal guardians to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. In California, medical malpractice lawsuits by a minor child must be commenced within three years from the date of the alleged malpractice except that lawsuits by a minor child under the full age of six years shall be commenced within three years or prior to his eighth birthday, whichever provides a longer period.

California provides an exception for minor children in cases of fraud. The law states that the statute of limitations shall be tolled (i.e., it stops running temporarily) for minors for any period during which the minor’s parent or guardian and defendant's insurer or health care provider have committed fraud or collusion in the failure to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the injured minor for medical malpractice.

There is also a separate statute of limitations for birth injuries. In California, a lawsuit for a minor child for personal injuries sustained before or in the course of his or her birth must be commenced within six years after the date of birth.

The Statute of Repose

The fourth part of the statute of limitations is sometimes called a statute of repose, which imposes an absolute deadline on medical malpractice claims, regardless of when the victim discovered them.

In California, the statute of repose provides that the time for beginning a malpractice lawsuit shall not exceed three years unless tolled for any of the following: (1) fraud, (2) intentional concealment, or (3) the presence of a foreign body, which has no therapeutic or diagnostic purpose or effect, in the person of the injured person.

Other Exceptions

California has other exceptions to the statute of limitations that may apply in a medical malpractice case, depending on the circumstances. For example, the statute of limitations may be extended if the defendant left the state after committing the malpractice, or if the victim of malpractice was mentally ill or mentally disabled.

The California statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases can be found at California Code of Civil Procedure sections 340.4 and 340.5.

Limits on Medical Malpractice Damages in California

Some states have caps or limits in the amount of the damages that can be awarded to a victim of medical malpractice. In California, there is a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages such as pain, suffering, physical impairment, loss of enjoyment of life, and/or loss of consortium.

Shared Fault Rules in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in California

In some medical malpractice cases, the defendant may argue that you are at least in part liable for causing your own injuries by, for example, failing to follow the doctor’s instructions. If you go to trial and are found to be partially liable, that finding will reduce or even eliminate your damage award, depending on state law.

California follows a “pure comparative negligence” rule. This means that, if you are found to be in part negligent with respect to your injury, illness, or medical condition, your award of damages is diminished in proportion to your fault. If, for example, you were awarded $100,000 in damages, but were found 20% at fault, your damages would be reduced to $80,000. Even if you were found 60% at fault, you would still receive $40,000.

Other Key California Medical Malpractice Laws

California has a law that requires that the defendant be formally notified of the plaintiff’s intention to file a medical malpractice lawsuit 90 days before the lawsuit is filed. The law also provides that, if the notice is served within 90 days of the expiration of the statute of limitations, the time for the commencement of the lawsuit shall be extended 90 days from the service of the notice.

This law can be found at California Code of Civil Procedure section 364.