In Minnesota, litigation is generally commenced upon service of the summons. Minn.R.Civ.P. 3.01. This is a unique framework and is different from most states and the federal court system that commence lawsuits on filing with the court. Rule 5.04 sets a one-year deadline for the case to be filed with the court or it will be potentially dismissed with prejudice.
For the statute of limitations, it is important to note the significance of the word “commenced” in this Rule. A case nearing the end of the limitations period will need to be commenced within the limitations period, i.e. served by the deadline or the appropriate waiver signed. Filing the case with the court is inadequate without proper service. Rule 3.01(c) does allow commencement of the case by delivering the summons to the sheriff in the county where the defendant resides, provided that defendant is served within 60 days. Note that the sheriff does not have to actually be the one who actually serves the defendant during this period and the commencement is ineffectual if the defendant is not properly served within the timeframe. Potential medical malpractice plaintiffs should be aware that tracking down any defendant for service can take time and that the precise entity that is the appropriate defendant is not always obvious from the medical records.
The hip-pocket framework allows cases to be in active litigation amongst the parties and outside of the court even knowing about the case. When the parties can work together, it can work to everyone’s benefit. Similarly, when cases have potential publicity issues, they can be sued out, discovery can be conducted, and the matters can even be resolved without any public record whatsoever. And once a case is commenced, either party may opt to file the case with the court for any reason.
In practice, the biggest issue that litigants will experience from proceeding outside of the court’s involvement will be delayed trial dates and other court deadlines. Medical malpractice cases are often deemed “complex” by Minnesota courts and parties often as for “date-certain” trial dates to schedule witnesses, many of whom are medical experts from across the country. Getting a busy judge to block off two weeks of their calendar for a single case is difficult and often impossible in the short term, especially because civil cases often have to take a backseat to criminal cases with Constitutionally-empowered speedy trial requests. Also, there is often a point at which even the most cooperative parties cease to get along with each other. A discovery dispute during litigation requires the filing of the case, appointment of the judge, and a lot of work for the court to gain some level of understanding of what is going on in the case so as to make a reasonable ruling. And if anything requires any motion practice whatsoever, it is a good idea for the judge to have some understanding about the case before it is dropped on their desk.
Because so much of a medical malpractice case’s progress depends on the proximity to the trial date, it is usually preferable to file the case right away.