Medical Malpractice in Washington DC

HospitalWashington DC is a very unique legal jurisdiction. Just like a regular state, the District of Columbia has its own territory with its own revenues, elected officials and laws. What makes DC different is that it is not a state but rather a single city (68 square miles with 700,000 people) that also happens to be the nation's capital. These 2 unique features influence just about everything in Washington DC including the laws regarding personal injury and the civil justice system. 

This page looks at medical malpractice claims and lawsuits in Washington DC. We will review the applicable DC laws on medical malpractice; the types of malpractice claims that are most frequently seen in DC; and how medical malpractice cases are generally resolved in the DC judicial system.

Doctors and Healthcare Professionals in DC

Just like in every other state Washington DC has its own licensing requirements for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals practicing medicine in the District of Columbia. Licensing and regulation of medical professionals are handled by the DC Board of Medicine a division of the DC Department of Health. Medical professionals licensed in DC can be searched here: Search for DC Healthcare Professional.

Who Can Be Sued for Medical Malpractice in DC?

Under District of Columbia law, any licensed medical professional can be held liable to a patient for medical malpractice. This not only includes traditional providers like doctors, nurses, and physician's assistants; but also non-traditional medical providers such as chiropractors,EMTs, and acupuncturists. The scope of potential defendants in DC medical malpractice claims also includes corporate/institutional healthcare providers such as hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices, and urgent care providers.

Statute of Limitations for Malpractice Claims in DC

All states have enacted laws which create time deadlines for how long a potential plaintiff can wait before bringing a personal injury claim or lawsuit. This sort of time limit law is generally referred to as a statute of limitations. Washington DC has its own limitations statutes that are applicable to any tort claims arising in the District of Columbia. The DC statute of limitations for medical malpractice cases is 3 years - DC Code § 12-301

Most people assume that this law means that a malpractice lawsuit must be filed no later than 3 years after the malpractice occurred - but it is not exactly that simple.

The reason it is not that simple is that DC follows the so-called "discovery rule" for calculating the date that the 3 year limitation period actually begins to run. Under the DC discovery rule the 3 year limitation period does not when the malpractice actually occurs. Rather the 3-year limit starts on the date that the plaintiff "discovers or reasonably should have discovered" that they were the victim of medical malpractice. So under the discovery rule as applied in the District of Columbia, a plaintiff must have actual or inquiry notice of the existence of a cause of action for personal injury.

A majority of states follow the discovery rule for calculating limitations periods. However, the DC Court of Appeals (the high court for DC) has developed a comparatively strict interpretation of the discovery rule that is very plaintiff friendly. This makes it easier for victims of malpractice to bring a lawsuit even when more than 3 years have passed since the alleged malpractice. DC law also recognizes an exception to the statute of limitations for children (minors under 18). When the victim of medical malpractice is a minor (under the age of 18) at the time the malpractice occurs, the DC limitations period is "tolled" and they have until their 21st birthday to file their claim.

No Certificate of Merit Requirement

The overwhelming majority of states have special rules require medical malpractice lawsuits to be supported by an initial certificate of merit. The certificate of merit is basically a signed statement from another doctor certifying that medical malpractice may have occurred. Without this "certificate of merit" from a qualified doctor,  a medical malpractice claim will be automatically dismissed. DC is one of the few remaining jurisdictions that has not adopted a certificate of merit requirement for medical malpractice cases. Plaintiffs can file medical malpractice cases without getting any formal certification from another doctor. DC law only requires medical malpractice plaintiffs to give 90 days written notice to intended defendants and go through a preliminary non-binding arbitration process before moving forward with a lawsuit. This makes it somewhat easier to get a medical malpractice lawsuit filed quickly in DC compared to other states.

DC Contributory Negligence Rule

The District of Columbia is one of only 4 states that still follow the traditional tort rule of contributory negligence. Contributory negligence is a common law tort doctrine which holds that if a plaintiff is completely barred from recovering damages if their own negligence was a contributor in any way to the injury. When applied literally contributory negligence can be an extremely harsh rule for tort plaintiffs. Fortunately for plaintiffs, however, juries and to a lesser extent judges in DC routinely shy away from the strict, literal application of this rule. This is particularly true in the context of medical malpractice where plaintiffs are less likely to contribute to the harm anyway.

No Limits on Damages for Medical Malpractice

Many states have laws which cap the maximum amount of certain types of damages that plaintiffs can get in malpractice cases. DC law does any caps or other restrictions on the type and/or maximum amount of damages that can be awarded in medical malpractice cases.

Examples of Common Medical Malpractice Claims in DC

Medical malpractice can occur in a variety of contexts and circumstances. However, the types of medical negligence that give rise to malpractice lawsuits tend to fall into certain well-known categories. Malpractice cases in Washington DC are a bit different. First of all the number of medical malpractice cases filed in DC each year is relatively small and only a few handfuls of these actually got to trial. Moreover, the strictly urban environment of DC naturally results in a higher number of cases involving hospitals and major procedures. Major hospitals tend to be located in large cities. This means that when someone needs to have major surgery, they usually go to a hospital in a large city (like DC) to have the procedure. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of malpractice cases in DC involves surgical errors or negligence hospital care.

  • Hartmann v. Dunne (DC 2017) $8 million: 65-year-old plaintiff claimed he suffered a perforation of his rectum and was diagnosed with a rectourethral fistula, after the defendants failed to properly perform his retropubic prostatectomy surgery and failed to timely recognize the perforation after it occurred. The defendants denied liability and contended they complied with the standard of care, the surgery was performed appropriately, and the rectal injury was timely discovered. The jury in the Superior Court for DC found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded damages totaling $8,000,000 which included $550,000 for medical expenses.
  • Robinson v. Azer (DC 2017) $8.3 million: plaintiff, a retired 82-year-old, had knee replacement surgery performed by defendant orthopedic surgeon. Following the surgery, the plaintiff's knee did not heal properly and steadily deteriorated despite repeated visits to the defendant. His leg eventually became black, gangrenous and partially mummified and had to be amputated 6 inches above the knee. He sued the surgeon claiming that he was negligent in failing to consult a vascular surgeon prior to surgery, improperly using a tourniquet during surgery despite the presence of a stent in plaintiff's leg, and negligently monitoring and handling his postoperative deterioration. The defendant denied any wrongdoing and blamed the plaintiff for failing to follow his postoperative instructions. The jury sided with the plaintiff and awarded $8,350,000 in damages.
  • Fletcher v. Brownlee (DC 2017) $494,000: plaintiff went to the emergency room at Providence Hospital with severe abdominal pain and was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix. The defendant surgeon performed a laparoscopic appendectomy procedure on the plaintiff when he cut too far and lacerated the plaintiff's bladder. The lacerated bladder was repaired by another surgeon, however, the bladder laceration led to a pelvis abscess which allegedly caused plaintiff to suffer permanent incontinence, urinary frequency, and stress incontinence. The defendants admitted to lacerating the plaintiff's bladder but claimed that this was a recognized risk of the surgical procedure. The defendants also contested the nature and extent of the plaintiff's alleged injuries resulting from the laceration. The jury ruled for the plaintiff and awarded $344,000 in compensatory damages plus another $150,000 to her husband for loss of spousal support.
Contact Miller & Zois About DC Medical Malpractice

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