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What is Medical Malpractice Law?
Medical malpractice occurs when an injured patient is harmed by a doctor (or other health care professional) who fails to competently perform their duties.
State rules about malpractice vary as to the statute of limitations when you must file your lawsuit, and whether you must notify the doctor ahead of time; however, there are some general principals and broad categories of rules that apply to most malpractice suits.
Basic Requirements for a Medical Malpractice Claim
To prove that medical malpractice occurred, you must be able to show all the following four legal elements:
A Doctor-Patient Relationship Existed
You must show that you had a physician-patient relationship with the doctor you are suing -- this means you hired the doctor and the doctor agreed to be hired. For example, you can't sue a doctor you overheard giving advice at a cocktail party.
If a doctor began seeing you and treating you, it is easy to prove a physician-patient relationship existed. Questions of whether or not the relationship exists most frequently arise where a consulting physician did not treat you directly.
The Doctor was Negligent
Just because you are unhappy with your treatment or results does not mean the doctor is liable for medical malpractice. The doctor must have conducted a negligent act in connection with your diagnosis or appropriate treatment.
To sue for malpractice, you must be able to show that the physician acted negligently in a way that a competent doctor, under the same circumstances, would not have. The doctor's reasonable care is not required to be the best possible, but simply "reasonably skillful and careful."
Whether the healthcare professional was reasonably skillful and careful is often at the heart of a malpractice claim.
Almost all states require that the patient present a medical expert to discuss the appropriate medical standard of care and show how the defendant deviated from that standard.
The Doctor's Negligence Resulted in the Injury
Because many malpractice cases involve patients that were already sick or injured, there is often a question of whether what the doctor did, negligent or not, actually caused the harm.
For example, if a patient dies after treatment for lung cancer, and the doctor did do something negligent, it could be hard to prove that the doctor's negligence caused the death rather than the cancer.
The patient must show that it is "more likely than not" that the doctor's incompetence directly caused the injury. In most cases, the patient must have a medical expert testify that such negligence caused the injury.
The Injury Led to Specific Damages
Even if it is clear that the doctor performed below the expected standards in his or her field, the patient can't sue for malpractice if the patient didn't suffer any harm. Examples of the types of harm patients can sue for include:
- Physical pain
- Mental anguish
- Additional medical bills
- Lost work and lost earning capacity
How Common are Medical Malpractice Cases?
According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, medical error is now the third leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. The researchers determined that over 250,000 fatalities relating to malpractice and negligence occur each year in the U.S.
The vast majority of medical malpractice cases fall into 1 of 3 categories:
Failure to Diagnose
Incorrectly diagnosing a patient's health condition can lead to adverse health complications and a poor chance of recovery.
For example, if a doctor diagnoses a patient who has lung cancer with something less serious, like allergies, the patient will not get the prompt medical attention they need. If another patient correctly diagnosed the patient and administered appropriate care, the patient may have grounds for a medical malpractice claim.
If your doctor performs a treatment that no other medical professional would reasonably provide, the patient may qualify to file a medical malpractice claim. Additionally, if the doctor chooses the right treatment but fails to administer it appropriately, the act qualifies as medical malpractice. If a physician treats a patient’s condition improperly at any time during their medical care, this also qualifies as medical malpractice due to negligence.
Failing to Warn of Known Risks
Health care professionals must tell a patient of all the known risks for any medical procedure or treatment. If the professional administers treatment that results in harm to the patient, and the patient would have refused the treatment had they known of the risks, they may have the basis for a claim.
What are the Odds of Winning a Medical Malpractice Claim?
Researchers with the Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research journal compiled 20 years of data of medical malpractice outcomes to examine the correlation between suspected patient injuries, lawsuits, and awarded compensation.
The researchers found that physicians win 80% to 90% of jury trials with weak evidence of medical negligence, about 70% of borderline cases, and 50% of cases with strong evidence of medical negligence.
In regard to the plaintiff's lawyer who won their cases and the reported data, 5% received a payout for diagnostic or treatment errors, 13% received a payout for surgical or procedural medical errors, and 27% received compensation for medication errors.
Based on these findings, it can be challenging to file a malpractice case. When you spend money and time on a lawsuit, you expect it to go in your favor. If it doesn’t, you may be in an even worse place financially.
That’s why it’s crucial to work with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. The more knowledgeable your attorney is in regard to medical negligence and proving fault, the better your chances are of achieving a successful verdict.
How Hard is it to Prove Malpractice?
One of the most challenging aspects of medical malpractice litigation is identifying negligence on the part of a doctor, nurse, surgeon, or other health care provider. Medical professionals are subject to high standards for providing care.
However, due to their advanced training and the stressful circumstances under which they often work, doctors and other providers also have fairly significant latitude in making decisions – particularly if a patient’s life is on the line.
Therefore, in a medical malpractice claim, a simple mistake is generally not considered negligence. An unfavorable outcome may not be evidence of negligence, either. Instead, the standard of care must be applied to determine whether a medical professional was negligent.
What is the Standard of Care?
The standard of care is the legal term for what a professional with the same background as your provider would reasonably do in a given situation. It encompasses the diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and other steps a prudent doctor or other professional would employ in caring for a patient.
Deviations from the standard of care may constitute negligence on the part of the provider. To prove negligence, your attorney must present evidence of (i). what the standard of care is and (ii). how the provider failed to meet the standard.
What are the Most Common Medical Malpractice Claims?
Any deviation from accepted ethical standard of care may result in medical malpractice. Some claims happen more frequently than others. The most common types of medical malpractice claims include:
- Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis
- Failure to treat
- Prescription drug errors
- Surgical or procedural errors
- Childbirth injuries
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How Hard is it to Sue a Doctor for Malpractice?
Medical malpractice cases are notoriously difficult for patients to win. The majority of medical malpractice lawsuits result in defense verdicts, meaning the doctor, hospital, or other doctor's office won the trial after the jury heard and considered all the evidence.
There are many challenges inherent in a medical malpractice suit, but some of the highest hurdles include:
- Proving that the doctor's conduct amounted to medical negligence
- Convincing the jury that the doctor was actually in the wrong
- Finding a qualified lawyer who can present the plaintiff's best case
Convincing the Jury of a Doctor's Negligence
Doctors win most of the medical malpractice cases that go to trial.
Lawyers and legal experts differ on why this is so, but one important reason seems to be that juries understand that the practice of medicine is hard, that there is often no one right way to do something, that most doctors try their best, and that not all patients end up with a good outcome.
Basically, unless the doctor made an obvious mistake, like leaving an instrument inside a patient after a surgical procedure, juries often give the doctor the benefit of the doubt.
Aside from having the right lawyer on your side, the key to convincing the jury that medical negligence occurred is having expert medical witnesses who can paint a compelling (and easily-understood) picture of the doctor's wrongdoing.
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The Medical Malpractice Litigation Group at our law firm is an experienced team of trial lawyers that focus exclusively on the representation of plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits. We are handling individual litigation nationwide and currently filing cases in all 50 states.