Medical malpractice is generally associated with doctors making mistakes when treating their patients. However, the scope of medical malpractice includes any:
- Lack of treatment; and/or
- Other departure from accepted standards of medical care, health care, or safety on the part of a healthcare provider that results in harm to a patient.
Medical malpractice liability refers to who should be held legally responsible for the patient’s injuries. This would generally be the party that breached their duty of care, and was the actual cause of the patient’s injuries. In terms of liable parties, medical malpractice claims can be brought against any medical provider that contributed to the patient’s injury. Some specific examples of entities who can be held liable for medical malpractice include, but may not be limited to:
- A doctor is liable if their actions failed to meet the generally accepted standards of practice;
- The hospital can be held liable for improper care or inadequate training in terms of the healthcare professionals; and/or
- The nurse or other medical staff that attended to the patient could be held liable if they contributed to the patient’s injury.
The hospital may also be liable for the patient’s injury under the respondent superior theory. According to this legal theory, an employer can be held liable for the negligent act of its employee if the employee was acting within the scope of their employment when the negligence occurred. The employer may be forced to pay damages, and could face punitive damages in especially egregious cases of medical malpractice.
Some of the most common examples of medical malpractice claims include:
- Failure to diagnose;
- Improper treatment;
- Delay in treatment;
- Prescription errors;
- Anesthesia errors;
- Improper surgery; and
- Failure to properly explain a medical procedure or potential side effects.
What Are Medical Malpractice Damage Awards?
In a medical malpractice case, legal remedies generally consist of a monetary damages award, which is paid by the defendant to the victim. This is a monetary amount that is intended to reimburse the plaintiff for any losses that were caused by the medical malpractice, such as:
- Additional hospital bills;
- Lost work wages; and/or
- Pharmaceutical costs.
Some medical malpractice claims result in considerably high damages awards, especially when the plaintiff suffered serious or egregious bodily damage because of the negligence. However, fraudulent medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed with the sole intention of collecting inflated or over-estimated damage awards. Because of these false claims, many states have enacted damage caps on medical malpractice awards, which will be further discussed below.
In order to receive damages for a medical malpractice claim, the injured patient must prove that there was an actual medical malpractice. This can be accomplished by proving the following elements:
- The person responsible for the medical malpractice owed the patient a duty of care that they failed to meet;
- The medical malpractice caused injury of damages to the patient in some way;
- The damages that were caused by the medical malpractice can be calculated into a specific monetary amount, and cannot be remedied in any other way; and
- The injury did not exist prior to the medical malpractice.
There are three different types of damages that are generally available in a medical malpractice case:
- General Damages: General damages compensate for the patient’s costs that they have suffered because of the medical malpractice incident. Some of the most common examples of general damages include:
- Loss of enjoyment of life caused by the medical defect;
- Physical and/or mental pain and suffering; and/or
- Loss of future earning capacity due to the medical defect;
- Special Damages: Special damages generally include past medical expenses, as well as future medical bills and expenses; and
- Punitive Damages: In some especially serious cases, a patient may recover punitive damages if the doctor’s act was willful and malicious. Another example of this would be if the doctor knew or should have known that an injury would result from their actions, or lack of action. The availability of punitive damages varies from state to state.
What Are Damage Caps In Medical Malpractice Cases?
As previously mentioned, many states limit the amount of non-economic damages that a victim can recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit. As such, it is helpful to discuss the differences between economic and non-economic damages before discussing damage caps.
Economic damages, or specific damages, are intended to compensate the plaintiff for their actual, measurable losses. In cases involving medical malpractice laws specifically, damages awarded generally include:
- Hospital bills;
- Therapy costs for emotional and/or mental issues brought on by the injury;
- The cost of medication; and
- Ambulance bills.
Economic damages are calculated by adding together amounts that have been documented on pharmacy receipts, hospital invoices, and other various medical bills. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, an expert witness in that specific medical field must demonstrate that the physician did not adhere to the standard of care. Additionally, a medical expert witness can assess the complex medical facts of the case in order to determine whether the physician should be held liable for the injury.
Non-economic damages, or general damages, are not measurable. They cannot be calculated by adding documented bills and receipts. These general damages compensate for non-monetary losses and include:
- The injury itself;
- Emotional distress;
- Disability or disfigurement;
- Pain and suffering;
- Physical impairment;
- Loss of companionship;
- Loss related to the plaintiff’s reputation; and/or
- Loss of enjoyment of life.
Because these damages are subjective, they vary from case to case and are subjected to strict guidelines that are determined by each individual jurisdiction. Some state medical malpractice laws only allow for non-economic damages based on proof of economic damages, which are calculated according to a specific formula in proportion to the economic damages. Generally speaking, they are also subject to a statutory cap.
Damage caps are limits on medical malpractice award amounts. Some states may enforce a “ceiling” amount, which is a maximum amount of damages that the plaintiff can receive regardless of the types of injuries they sustained. These limits vary by state. An example of this would be how in California, there is a $250,000 limit for non-economic damages claimed by the plaintiff, while in Michigan the cap is $280,000 for non-economic damages.
What Else Should I Know About Damages In Medical Malpractice Cases?
Some additional legal factors can influence how damage awards are calculated in a medical malpractice claim. An example of this would be how pre-existing medical conditions may reduce the amount of damages that the plaintiff can recover, as well as patient negligence. If the patient failed to follow the doctor’s instructions, their damages award may be reduced. In some states, patient negligence can entirely prohibit the plaintiff from recovering damages.
All states have laws determining whether a personal representative can recover damages if the medical malpractice results in a patient’s death. These laws are called survivor statutes, and they allow the patient’s heirs or estate to recover damages that occurred during the period of the initial medical malpractice, up to the time of the patient’s death.
Such damages generally include everything that any other medical malpractice case awards as if the patient survived and brought their own claim. A patient’s estate or heir can also bring a wrongful death claim for their future monetary loss.
Do I Need An Attorney For Issues With Damages In Medical Malpractice Cases?
If you experienced injury as a result of medical malpractice and wish to pursue a damages award, you should consult with an area personal injury attorney as soon as possible. An experienced and local personal injury lawyer will be aware of your state’s specific laws and damages caps. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.