Medical Malpractice and Punitive Damages

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 What Is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice occurs when a doctor or other medical professional causes injury to a patient by falling below the standard duty of care that is required of them when they are:

  • Managing;
  • Diagnosing; and/or
  • Treating a patient.

The deviation from the standard duty of care that is required of all medical professionals is generally the result of an act of negligence by the medical professional. Medical malpractice law is the set of laws that allows an injured patient (also known as a plaintiff) to bring a legal claim against a negligent medical professional. Malpractice laws also allow individuals to recover damages for the harms that were caused by the professional’s substandard conduct.

Whether or not a medical professional can actually be held liable for a patient’s injuries will largely depend on the facts of the specific case, as well as the medical malpractice laws that are enacted in the state in which the harm occurred. Importantly, the standards and regulations for medical malpractice can even vary between different jurisdictions within the same state. This is why it is advised that if you believe you have sustained injuries due to medical malpractice, you should consult with a local personal injury lawyer in order to know which laws apply in your area.

Some of the most common examples of medical malpractice claims include:

  • Improperly diagnosing or failing to properly diagnose a patient;
  • Prescribing the wrong treatment or wrong medication for a patient;
  • Operating on the wrong body party, such as amputating the wrong limb;
  • Prematurely discharging a patient before they have sufficiently been treated and recovered;
  • Leaving behind medical equipment inside the patient. For example, leaving surgical instruments or sponges inside a patient after they have been closed up;
  • Not providing adequate the patient adequate information regarding the procedure, or receiving informed consent from the patient before the patient underwent surgery; and
  • Inputting erroneous data into a patient’s medical chart, such as failing to input the patient’s allergies, which result in harm to the patient.

Medical malpractice liability is a legal term that refers to which medical professionals or organizations may be held legally responsible for a patient’s injuries. Generally speaking, the party who breached their duty of care and was the actual cause of the patient’s injuries, is typically who is held accountable for the patient’s injuries. However, determining exactly who was responsible for the injuries can sometimes be a challenge, as medical malpractice liability often involves more than one party.

An example of this would be how it is possible to split medical malpractice liability between a doctor and their nurse when their combined negligent conduct led to a patient’s injury. This is because nurses operate under the instructions of the doctor. Therefore, if improper instructions were provided, or if one medical professional failed to correct the other, there may be a chance that both parties can be held liable for the patient’s resulting injuries.

The organization itself, such as a hospital organization may also be held liable for medical malpractice in many cases. This is especially true in cases in which a medical organization’s overall policy or quality of care for patients falls below the necessary duty of care standard. For example, if the facility’s policies on sterilization are improper, and that lack of proper sterilization leads to the infection of a patient, then the whole facility may be held accountable.

Some examples of parties who may be held liable for medical malpractice include:

  • General practitioners or other licensed physicians;
  • Nursing staff;
  • Clerical staff
  • Hospitals or other medical facilities;
  • Dentists;
  • Psychiatrists;
  • Chiropractors; and/or
  • Any other medical professionals that come into contact with a patient.

How Is Medical Malpractice Proven?

Similar to other personal injury lawsuits, in order to succeed in a lawsuit for medical malpractice, the plaintiff who is bringing a medical clinic malpractice claim must prove all of the following elements:

  • Duty: Doctors are required to adhere to a specific standard of care. In legal terms, the standard of card is defined as the amount of care that a reasonably competent and prudent physician, who is in good standing and of the same or similar educational background and geographic location as another physician, should exercise given the circumstances. Thus, the plaintiff must prove that the physician in question did, in fact, owe them a duty of care at the time they were injured;
  • Breach: An injured patient must also prove that the doctor breached their duty of care. Typically this element is proved by an expert who testifies that the doctor’s conduct fell below the standard of care required of their position;
  • Causation: Causation simply means that the plaintiff must prove that the doctor did in fact cause the injury. Typically, the court will ask “but for the doctor’s actions, would the plaintiff have been injured?” Then, if the answer is no, causation is considered to be proved; and
  • Damages: The plaintiff must finally prove that they suffered physical, financial, and/or emotional harm directly because their healthcare provider breached their duty of care. Typically damages in an action to recover for harm suffered by a breach of duty will be limited to the amount of money spent to remedy the harm suffered. However, in many cases there may be claims for future damages, and even punitive damages.

Are There Any Legal Remedies For Medical Malpractice?

Damages in medical malpractice claims generally take the following form:

  • Economic Damages: Economic damages are monetary amounts that can be measured and specifically calculated based on a particular harm. This most commonly includes medical expenses, hospital bills, lost wages, and/or loss of earning capacity;
  • Non-Economic Damages: Non-economic damages are monetary amounts that are more difficult to calculate, as they are intangible or somewhat immeasurable injuries. This most common examples of non-economic damages include a patient’s pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of activities, loss of consortium, and reputational damage; and
  • Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are rarely awarded in medical malpractice claims. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant, in an effort to discourage repetition of their actions. These damages will be discussed in further detail below.

Examples of other remedies that a plaintiff may request include having a medical professional’s license suspended or revoked, or requiring that a medical facility update their policies and/or health and safety procedures in order to continue operation.

What Is the Limit for Punitive Damage Awards?

Once again, punitive damages are only awarded in cases where the judge or jury presiding over the case wish to punish the defendant in an effort to prevent further incidents of harm. Generally, the amount of the punitive damages will be awarded as a multiple of the determined economic and non-economic damages. For example, a patient may have suffered a total of $125,000 in actual economic and non-economic damages, but the judge or jury may award the plaintiff an additional $1,000,000 in punitive damages given the severity of the medical professional’s actions.
Some states will have a cap on the amount of total damages awarded to a patient. For example, in Texas punitive damages are capped at the greater of $200,000 or two times the amount of economic damages plus the amount equal to non-economic damages up to $750,000. Most commonly punitive damages will be reserved for severe injury of the patient, or lawsuits brought by the family of the patient for wrongful death of the patient.

Do I Need An Attorney For Medical Malpractice and Punitive Damages?

If you or a loved one has been injured due to medical malpractice, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced personal injury attorney will be most aware of your specific state’s laws and how those laws may affect your legal rights and options.

Additionally, an attorney will also be able to advise you if punitive damages may be available in your particular case. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.

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