The Who, What, Why, When and How of Medical Malpractice Cases in Virginia

You can define “Medical Malpractice,” can’t you? You may know what it means, but I would be surprised if you have actually considered how to file a med mal claim. This article briefly outlines what Medical Malpractice means in Virginia, from the letter of the law, to the process families undergo when filing a Medical Malpractice Claim. Please note, the laws are often being changed, so always consult an attorney about your specific case, AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Definition

Under Virginia law, Medical Malpractice means “any tort action or breach of contract action for personal injuries or wrongful death, based on health care or professional services rendered, or which should have been rendered, by a health care provider, to a patient. Put simply, medical malpractice claims arise from health care worker / patient relationships, where the patient experiences damages (physical and/or financial), as a result of the health care provider’s negligence.

Clearly, you know who your doctor is, but who is included in the legal definition of “health care provider?” Virginia case law has frequently defined who is, and who is not a health care provider. For example, a physician with an expired license is not a health care provider and is therefore not covered by the laws in the Virginia Medical Malpractice Act. A laboratory is not likely considered a health care provider. A nurse however, is a health care provider. A nursing home is also a health care provider. Tell your attorneys who you believe was involved, and allow them to do the research to determine whether or not your case is technically a medical malpractice claim.

Statute of Limitations

Claim for an Adult
In Virginia, most personal injury actions against health care providers must be filed with the Court within two years of the date of the negligence.

In a case involving a foreign object (surgical sponges, needles, etc.), you have the two-year limitations from the date of negligence, or “a period of one year from the date the object is discovered or reasonably should have been discovered” – whichever period of time is longer.

In Virginia, under limited circumstances, you may be able to file a medical malpractice claim after the two year statute of limitations under what is called the continuing treatment doctrine. This rule is very complicated, and not a sure bet – so as previously stated, speak with an attorney as soon as possible to allow sufficient time to investigate and possibly file your claim.

Claim for a Minor
The rules for children are different. If you are under the age of 18, you are deemed to be a minor in Virginia. If the parent or guardian of a minor wants to file a claim for damage to property (their child being the property), the parent or guardian has five years after the damage, to bring the suit. You will not be able to recover anything but the actual damages or medical bills.

To bring a medical malpractice claim for damage sustained by a minor, it gets even more confusing. Virginia law provides that if the child is less than 8 years old at the time of the injury, they have until their 10th birthday to bring the claim. If the child was older than ten at the time of the negligence, they have two years from that date to file the action.

Virginia Code §8.01-229 states that if one is under a disability (which includes under the age of 18), they have until they are 18 to bring the claim. Please note, the Virginia Supreme Court recently held in medical malpractice cases, it is not until you are 18, plus two years – it is until they are 18 and then the statute expires.

The moral of the story is – with a possible malpractice claim involving a child – call an attorney immediately to find out when your cause of action must be filed.

Wrongful Death Claim
If the negligence of the health care provider caused the death of your loved one and you want to file suit, the claim is called a wrongful death claim. Virginia Code §8.01-244 states that such “action shall be brought by the personal representative of the decedent within two years after the death of the injured person.”

What is the process of filing a malpractice claim?

Investigating / Reviewing Records
Every attorney who is approached about a medical malpractice case will first need to review the relevant medical records. In our office, we prefer the family request these records so the facility or doctor is not made aware of attorney involvement. Once the records are requested, a doctor or hospital has 3 days to produce the records to the family. Under federal law, a nursing home must produce requested records within 2 business days. The hospital, doctor, or nursing home is allowed to charge a reasonable copying fee.

Once you get the records, the attorney, staff or a third party will review the records for the attorney. The purpose of the review is to make sure all the records are present and that the records reflect the events as told to the family, etc. It will take most law offices 2-4 weeks to review the records and decide whether it is a case worth investigating.

Expert Review
If your attorneys believe the case is worthy of further investigation, after reviewing the medical records, they will seek an expert review of the case. An expert is basically a licensed physician who practices medicine in the same field, or specialty, as the health care provider you believe acted negligently.

In Virginia, an expert is required in almost all cases to establish what the health care provider did wrong or should have done. A second expert may be necessary to establish that the defendant health care provider’s negligence caused the damages suffered by you or your loved one. And you just can’t hire any doctor – your expert must meet a certain set of standards established by Virginia Courts, which includes an understanding of the state wide standard of care, in addition to sufficient knowledge skill and experience. Typically, your attorney will find the experts for you.

Experts are not cheap! Typically an expert will charge $300-$400 an hour to review a case. They may increase their fees for court time and depositions. Experts will be the largest cost in any malpractice case. Paying the experts falls upon the family. Because attorneys are prohibited from forwarding money to their clients in Virginia, law firms will require families to pay a cash retainer to the law firm, so the firm can pay the experts for their review and time.

Certification
If the expert believes malpractice occurred, they will have to certify their opinion in writing. This is a new requirement in Virginia. Virginia Code § 8.01-20.1 and Virginia Code §8.01-50.1 require in all medical malpractice and wrongful death actions a written opinion signed by the expert, that the defendant has deviated from the applicable standard of care and the deviation was a proximate cause of the injuries/death.

Filing Suit/Arbitration
From start to end, a lawsuit in Virginia State Courts could take 1-2 years.

If your expert has certified the case, the next step is filing the lawsuit. Now, a medical malpractice case in Virginia is called a COMPLAINT. The Complaint will be drafted by your attorney and will include a list of the relevant facts and allegations of negligence. It will be filed in the City or County Court where the negligent treatment occurred, or where the patient lived at the time of the treatment. After it is filed, it will be served on the defendants. This usually means a Sheriff will deliver the document and the defendant then has less than 1 month to respond to the lawsuit.

Please note – not everyone will have the opportunity to have a jury hear their claim in Court. Many health care contracts ask patients to waive their rights to a jury trial and agree to submit all disputes to arbitration. WE STRONGLY ADVISE AGAINST ALL ABRITRATION AGREEMENTS FOR MANY REASONS. See March / August 2006 articles on http://legalmedicine.blogspot.com/

If, however, you have signed an Arbitration Agreement, you have at least sixty days after the termination of health care to revoke the agreement. If such termination is by death or if death occurs within sixty days after termination, you will have a period of at least sixty days after the appointment and qualification of the guardian, conservator or committee or personal representative to revoke the arbitration agreement.

Written Discovery
After the lawsuit is filed, both sides will issue what is called written discovery.
Written discovery is where lawyers on both sides request documents and answers to questions under oath. These questions and answers become the building blocks of the case and will often consume many months of the case.

Depositions
In addition to written discovery, both sides are given the opportunity to question their opponents’ witnesses and clients under oath. Plaintiffs will almost always be deposed, as well as various employees of the defendant, other treating physicians, and experts. Depositions are usually held in an attorney’s office, with both attorneys, a court reporter, and other witnesses present.

Settlement
If the clients agree, the attorneys on both sides can enter into settlement negotiations in an attempt to resolve the case before it goes to trial. With trial, there is always a chance that the jury will rule against you even with the best evidence and experts, so many clients seek settlement where there is a guarantee for both sides.

Trial
You’ve seen My Cousin Vinny? Well, trial is not too far different from that movie. Its emotional, and it can be a long – and often a very draining experience, but at the end of the day, you are trusting a jury of your peers to determine whether your health care provider was negligent, and if so, what damages his/her negligence caused.

Parties
Well, now that your attorney has decided you have a malpractice claim, and you know that it is a long and detailed process; you must decide who will be named as defendants. Often it will be the doctor or nurse who failed to provide care, and their employer.

Please note that there are many healthcare providers in Virginia that you cannot sue for malpractice as they are considered employees of the state, and thus entitled to sovereign immunity.

Burden of Proof

You cannot just tell the jury that you think the doctor or health care provider messed up. In Virginia, you must prove the following:

1. That the health care provider failed to provide care in accordance with “the degree of skill and diligence practiced by a reasonably prudent practitioner in the field of practice or specialty in this Commonwealth”

2. That the health care provider’s negligence was the cause of your damages.

This is a very high standard to meet – what if your physician could have been the cause of your injury, but you have similar health problems which also could have caused your injury and pain. NO MALPRACTICE CLAIM.

Limitations
Ever read about big huge verdicts in the paper?

Well, they are not likely Virginia cases. The General Assembly has established
a “cap” on what you can recover in any medical malpractice action (no matter how many defendants are involved or how large your damages), which is based on the year the negligent care occurred as follows:

2000 – $1,550,000.00
2001 – $1,600,000.00
2002 – $1,650,000.00
2003 – $1,700,000.00
2004 – $1,750,000.00
2005 – $1,800,000.00
2006 – $1,850,000.00
2007 – $1,925,000.00
2008 – $2,000,000.00
Cost
Filing a medical malpractice claim is not cheap. While most malpractice attorneys
will accept your case on a contingency basis (meaning they don’t charge you an hourly rate for their time) – families, and not attorneys, must be responsible for the costs of litigation.

The costs of litigation are:

Expert hourly fees
Copying costs
Long distance phone calls
Mileage for travel
Court costs
Court reporters

When potential clients come into our office inquiring about a potential medical malpractice lawsuit, we advise them that the Expert Fees alone may exceed $25,000. Certainly something to think about if your only damages as a result of the doctor’s negligence is around $10,000.

Outcome

If you take a case to trial – there is no guarantee you will win. Virginians are
wonderful people, but as everyone has a different opinion on politics, faith and justice – you cannot guarantee a Judge or Jury will rule in your favor, even with the best possible medical malpractice case.

Filing a malpractice case will not bring back your loved one, or take away your pain. So each and every family must consider all of the factors before they pursue a claim.

Conclusion
If I can leave you with one piece of advice – it would be to:
FIND AN ATTORNEY YOU TRUST – AND EVALUATE YOUR OPTIONS!!!

Lauren Ellerman is an attorney with Frith Law Firm in Roanoke, Virginia. She concentrates her practice on medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, nursing home neglect, lead paint poisoning, and business torts. You may view her complete profile at http://www.frithlawfirm.com/lauren.htm and the firm’s home page http://www.frithlawfirm.com

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