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While medical malpractice cases may sound like something straight from a TV series, several cases reported in Tennessee seemed just like ordinary events.  

For example, a Nashville marketing executive recently suffered brain damage after a routine gallbladder surgery, which is generally considered safe

Several discomforting reports are linking medical errors as one of the leading causes of death nationwide. These reports suggest the number of these deaths is just below deaths from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disorders. 

One such article from Johns Hopkins Medicine, whose aim was to advocate for the improvement of the CDC’s reporting on fatalities, suggests so. However, a more recent article from the Yale School of Medicine found these numbers may be more than two or four times higher. 

In 2022 alone, Tennesseans filed 963 medical malpractice claims, as reported in the National Practitioner Data Bank. The data was lifted using NPDB’s Data Analysis Tool

Even though modern medicine has come a long way, human error and design flaws in man-made systems are something that one must always bear in mind. This article serves as a guide for those with interests in medical malpractice matters. 

What Qualifies as Medical Malpractice in Tennessee?

Medical malpractice lawsuits are referred to as healthcare liability actions in Tennessee. While healthcare professionals are liable for their actions, not all adverse results in medical care merit a lawsuit. 

An injured patient may have a valid medical malpractice claim if their injuries were caused by the negligence of a healthcare professional. 

These acts of negligence may lead to a liability action:

  • Failure to order laboratory tests.

  • Prescribing the wrong dose or medication.

  • Not taking a patient’s medical history appropriately.

  • Failure to recognize common symptoms causing a delay in treatment.

  • Prematurely discharging a patient from the hospital.

  • Negligent practices that result in hospital-acquired infections.

Furthermore, a patient seeking compensation for their losses must be able to prove that the negligence resulted in the injuries. Tennessee medical malpractice laws explicitly instruct the jury not to presume the defendant’s negligence based on the presence of injuries alone.

Who Can You Sue for Medical Malpractice in Tennessee?

You can sue various types of healthcare professionals in Tennessee for malpractice. They can be:

  • Surgeons.

  • Pharmacists.

  • Optometrists.

  • Osteopaths.

  • Psychologists.

  • Dentists.

  • Podiatrists.

Fellows, resident physicians, and interns in hospital training programs can also be held liable


Liability limitations exist in some cases. These include:

  • Government entities and employees - There is a limit to suing government entities for malpractice. This limit is waived if the malpractice involves willful, criminal, and malicious intent or is committed for personal gain. 

  • Good Samaritans - These are people who, in good faith, render emergency medical services to an injured person. They may not be sued for malpractice except if their conduct involves gross negligence. These people can be civilians, volunteers, medical professionals, or trained emergency responders.

Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance Requirements

Professionals are not required by state laws to carry medical malpractice liability insurance. There are also no federal requirements. 

However, many hospital systems in Tennessee, including Baptist Memorial Hospital, TriStar Skyline Medical Center, and CHI Memorial Hospital, require doctors to have such insurance. Additionally, some healthcare insurance companies also make a similar requirement for doctors to be in the insurance’s network. 

The most common liability coverage in the state is $1 million per claim, plus an annual cumulative limit of $3 million. 

A lawyer near you can assist you in filing a medical malpractice claim with the insured healthcare practitioner’s insurance company. This can be recommended if you are seeking quick recovery of compensation and if your injuries are not severe. The lawyer can assist you if this method is advantageous for your medical malpractice case. 

What Is the Statute of Limitations in Tennessee for Medical Malpractice Cases?

Under Tennessee’s statute of limitations, injured patients have one year to file a healthcare liability action after the negligence occurred.

The same laws also give patients up to a year to file a lawsuit after reasonably discovering their injuries and that these were caused by negligence. 

According to previous rulings from the Tennessee Supreme Court, knowing the injuries’ existence on the advice of another healthcare professional cannot be used as proof of discovery. 

This further means the one-year deadline does not start on the day the injured patient learns from a doctor of the existence of the negligence. It is possible that the timer for the one-year deadline may already have started. 

Such laws provide an absolute deadline by stating that no medical malpractice suit may be brought forward after three years since the negligence happened. 

While the one-year deadline is paused if the victim is a minor, this is not the case with the absolute deadline. 

Exemptions to the absolute deadline

The three-year deadline may be paused in the following scenarios:

  • Fraud - The healthcare provider fraudulently hides the negligence’s occurrence. In this situation, the deadline becomes one year after the patient discovers the negligence. 

  • Foreign objects - There is a foreign object left inside the patient’s body after surgery. The one-year deadline shall start as soon as the patient reasonably discovers the injury or negligence. 

What Do You Need to Prove in a Tennessee Medical Malpractice Case?

Healthcare liability laws in Tennessee declare that the burden lies with the claimant to prove the negligence. Therefore, to be able to successfully sue the healthcare provider, the injured patient must be able to prove the following elements:

  • The defendant owes the patient a duty of standard care.

  • There was a failure to uphold such duty.

  • The failure resulted in harm to the patient.

  • The patient suffered losses from the harm

Expert witness testimony

Successfully proving negligence entails the deployment of testimony from an expert witness, who must meet certain qualifications:

  • Possessing a relevant healthcare professional license issued by the state or bordering states

  • Experience in the field or specialty relevant to the case at least a year before the alleged negligence happened

Generally, expert witnesses serve to confirm the standard level of medical care, educate the judge and jury, and establish whether the defendant’s actions violated the standard. 

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Res ipsa loquitur is a law doctrine taken from the Latin expression that means “the thing speaks for itself”. In a medical malpractice lawsuit in Tennessee, it can be used to present circumstantial evidence that allows the jury to infer negligence based on this evidence. 

One example of res ipsa loquitur cases is foreign objects left inside the patient’s body. For example, this happens when a surgeon forgets to remove a scalpel after surgery. 

However, res ipsa loquitur in Tennessee is not confined to negligence involving foreign objects. Aided by expert testimony, it can be used in cases where there is no direct evidence of the healthcare professional’s negligence. 

Pre-suit requirements

Certain requirements must be submitted to the court before it accepts healthcare liability actions.

Notice of Claim

A notice of claim must be furnished to the defendant within 60 days before filing the lawsuit. It serves to inform the defendant of the patient’s intent to file a lawsuit. 

The law stipulates the following specific details that must be included in the notice:

  • The full name and birthdate of the patient

  • The name and address of the authorized claimant if the patient is unable to file

  • The name and address of the lawyer, when applicable

  • The names and addresses of all the healthcare professionals named as defendants

  • A HIPAA-compliant medical authorization for all named defendants to obtain medical records from each other. 

The statute of limitations can be extended for another 120 days after the deadline expires, provided the notice follows the requirements set forth. 

Certificate of Good Faith

When expert witness testimony is utilized in the case, a Certificate of Good Faith must be submitted with the lawsuit. 

The certificate must declare that the claimant or their legal counsel has consulted an expert witness who has given a signed written statement. The witness must also:

  • Meet the qualifications 

  • Believes that the lawsuit has merit based on the information available at hand. If such information is absent, the expert witness also believes that certain facts in the case render the lawsuit meritorious. 

The purpose of this pre-suit requirement is to remove any frivolous lawsuits. 

Claims against government employees or medical facilities

Before filing a lawsuit, the injured patient who wants to sue a government employee or medical facility must first submit a claim to the appropriate government administrative agency. 

Claims against the state have to be submitted to the Division of Claims and Risk Management within the one-year statute of limitations. 

Federal claims must be submitted to the proper federal administrative agency within two years after the malpractice happened. 

How Much Can You Sue For Medical Malpractice in Tennessee?

According to 2021 data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, healthcare liability payouts in Tennessee averaged $280,000. 

However, various factors can affect how much compensation a victim can obtain. These include:

  • The severity of the injury and its impact on the victim.

  • The gravity of negligence.

  • Insurance coverage of the healthcare professional.

  • Strength of the evidence.

  •  Ability of the expert witness and legal counsel.

In general, victim compensation can be estimated by dividing it into different types, called damages

Types of Damages

The most common types of damages are:

  • Economic damages - are compensation for the victim’s tangible losses, such as medical expenses, lost income, and injury-related out-of-pocket costs.

  • Non-economic damages - are compensation for losses that are difficult to place a value on. Examples are pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment in life, and humiliation. 

A third type of damages, called punitive damages, is awarded to punish the defendant for their malicious, reckless, or fraudulent actions.

Caps on Damages

Healthcare liability laws in Tennessee do not place a limit on the economic damages a victim can recover. There are, however, limits on:

  • Non-economic damages - should not exceed $750,000 generally. For catastrophic injuries, the limit becomes $1 million. Examples of such injuries include limb amputation, quadriplegia, and wrongful death of a minor’s parent.

  • Punitive damages - should not exceed $500,000, or twice the total amount of compensatory damages. 

Caps on non-economic damages are not applicable in situations where the defendant:

  • Willfully concealed, destroyed, or hidden evidence of the negligence.

  • Intended to inflict serious injury.

  • Was under the influence of stimulants or intoxicants.

Damages from state government claims

The damages that can be awarded in state government claims are capped at $300,000 per victim. It is also limited to $1 million per occurrence. 

Punitive damages and litigation costs, except for court expenses, are not awarded for these claims. 

Negligence System

The state follows a modified comparative negligence system with a 50% bar rule. The system was first imposed by the Tennessee Supreme Court in a case ruling in 1992

Under this system, a medical malpractice victim who has some degree of fault for their injuries may recover compensation reduced to their degree of fault. This only applies so long as the fault is not more than 50%. In short, the victim must not be more at fault than the healthcare professional. 

The same case ruling also provides instructions on how compensation will be given if there are multiple defendants. In this situation, the victim can recover compensation as long as their fault does not exceed the combined faults of the defendants. 

Methods of Obtaining Compensation

Healthcare liability actions in Tennessee can be resolved through:

  • Settlement Negotiation - Parties to the lawsuit negotiate the compensation a victim can get.

  • Mediation - A trained mediator oversees the parties’ negotiation on compensation

  • Arbitration - An arbitrator will serve as a judge and decide whether the victim will be awarded compensation or not. 

Many liability actions end up getting settled, while a few go to trial. A few are resolved through mediation and arbitration. These alternative dispute resolution methods are not mandatory in the state.

How Much Does It Cost to Pursue a Medical Malpractice Case in Tennessee?

According to lawyers’ info on their websites, the cost of building a solid case is somewhere around $50,000. It can go up to $100,000 if the case is complex. 

Healthcare liability actions in Tennessee are indeed costly. Here are some of the costs that come with pursuing a case: 

  • Lawyer’s fees.

  • Expert witness costs.

  • Court expenses.

  • Obtaining medical records.

  • Preparing trial exhibits.

  • Deposition-related expenses.

Next to lawyer’s fees, expert witness costs are the biggest expenditures, costing as much as thousands of dollars. 

Lawyer’s fees

Lawyer’s fees make the most of case expenditures. However, most law firms in Tennessee do not charge their clients upfront costs to pursue a healthcare liability lawsuit. Rather, they provide services on a contingency fee basis. 

Under the contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer can only obtain their fees once the client recovers compensation, whether through a trial award or a settlement. This goes to say that they do not get paid if the client does not win the case.

Tennessee laws limit the lawyer’s fees to 33⅓ of the client’s compensation. Courts have the final say in how much a lawyer can get in a medical malpractice award. 

Paying for the lawsuit

Many law firms also offer to pay for lawsuit-related costs, while others split the cost with their clients. This practice, coupled with contingency fee arrangements, aims to help injured patients pursue a healthcare liability action regardless of their financial means.

Clients must remember to discuss these matters thoroughly when consulting a lawyer for the first time. They must note that all these cost-related arrangements must be detailed in the service contract with the lawyer. The Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct state that these details have to be explicitly expressed in writing. 

Legal Resources for Medical Malpractice Victims in  Tennessee

Tennessee Legal Aid Organizations

There are many legal aid organizations and community resources in Tennessee that can assist claimants in a medical malpractice lawsuit. These organizations exist to serve low-income Tennesseans, but they may be able to point others in the right direction to get legal help or answers. Some of these resources include the Tennessee Justice Center and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Justice For All initiative. 

Tennessee Bar Association

The state bar provides an array of legal resources to the public. Claimants can utilize the state bar’s referral service to find a lawyer within their area. They can also find helpful advice on legal fees, changing lawyers, and filing a complaint against lawyer misconduct

Tennessee Department of Health

The state health agency has the authority to regulate various healthcare-related boards that serve the public. Victims who believe that a healthcare professional acted negligently can file an online complaint or seek related assistance from the state agency. They can review information on the standard practices and rules of conduct that each healthcare professional must adhere to. These victims can also speak to an individual from the Office of Investigations by calling 800-852-2187. They have the option to file a complaint anonymously. 

National Medical Malpractice Advocacy Association

The NMMAA is a non-profit that advocates for social justice. It offers resources for victims and their legal team to help them navigate the medical system through medical summary services. Victims can also obtain assistance in filing a complaint with the medical board, getting a lawyer, and finding a patient advocate.

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