The Ill-Designed “Continuous Treatment” Rule for the Health Law of Massachusetts

By Alex Stein

Under Massachusetts law, suits alleging medical malpractice in a treatment of a minor patient must be filed “within three years from the date the cause of action accrues.” G.L.c. 231, § 60D. In a recent case, Parr v. Rosenthal, 57 N.E.3d 947 (Mass. 2016), the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts decided that a patient’s continuous treatment by the same physician can toll this period under certain restrictive conditions. One of those conditions requires the plaintiff to show that the physician continued to treat the patient “for the same or related condition” after committing the alleged malpractice, and that “treatment” in that context includes supervision of, as well as consultation and advice to, other treating physicians. Another condition makes continuous treatment part of the discovery rule that moves the onset of the limitations period to the day on which the patient knew or could have reasonably suspected that her physician treated her negligently. According to the Court, continuous treatment instills in the patient “innocent reliance” that the physician treats her properly, which makes the physician’s malpractice not reasonably discoverable. Moreover, innocent reliance can even be present when the patient realizes that she sustained harm from the physician’s treatment. As the Court explained, “A patient who continues under the care of the same physician will still have the same challenges in learning whether the harm [she] suffered from the physician’s treatment arose from the physician’s negligence.” Based on these observations, the Court decided that the “continuous treatment” rule will not benefit patients who affirmatively suspected that they received negligent treatment from their physician. Such patients, the Court held, cannot show “innocent reliance.” Continue reading