Medical malpractice occurs when a doctor, other medical professional, and/or healthcare organization dips below the standard duty of care required when managing, diagnosing, or treating a patient, which then results in an injury to that patient. This deviation from the standard duty of care required of all medical professionals usually stems from an act of negligence.
Medical malpractice law is what enables an injured patient to bring a claim against a negligent medical professional. It allows them to recover damages for the harms caused by their substandard conduct.
Whether a medical professional can be held liable for a patient’s injuries will not only depend on the facts of a specific case, but also on the various rules and requirements of medical malpractice laws enacted in a particular state. In some instances, the standards and regulations for medical malpractice can even vary between different jurisdictions within the same state.
Therefore, if you believe you have sustained injuries as a result of medical malpractice, you should consult a local personal injury lawyer to learn more about the relevant laws that apply in your area.
What is Medical Malpractice Liability?
Medical malpractice liability refers to which persons and/or organizations should be held legally responsible for a patient’s injuries. In general, this party is typically the one who breached their duty of care and was the actual cause of the patient’s injuries. However, figuring out exactly who was in fact liable can sometimes be a challenge. The reason for this is due to the fact that medical malpractice liability often involves more than one party.
For example, it is possible to split medical malpractice liability between both a doctor and their nurse (or other medical personnel) when their combined negligent conduct led to a patient’s injury. Say for instance, if improper instructions were provided or if one medical professional failed to correct the other, then there may be a chance that both parties can be held liable for their mistakes.
In addition, the organization itself (e.g., a hospital organization) can also sometimes be held liable for medical malpractice. This is especially true in cases where a medical organization’s overall policy or quality of care for patients falls below the necessary duty of care standard.
Some parties who can be held liable for medical malpractice include general practitioners, nurses, hospitals, surgeons, dentists, psychiatrists, chiropractors, gynecologists, and clerical staff.
What are Some Examples of Medical Malpractice Claims?
Some common examples of medical malpractice claims include:
- Improperly diagnosing or failing to diagnose a patient;
- Prescribing the wrong treatment or wrong medication;
- Operating on the wrong body party (e.g., amputating their left leg instead of right leg);
- Failing to follow-up after a patient receives a serious procedure;
- Prematurely discharging a patient before they have recovered well-enough;
- Leaving behind medical equipment (e.g., instruments or sponges left inside a patient) during a surgery;
- Not providing information or receiving informed consent before a patient underwent surgery; and/or
- Inputting erroneous data into a patient’s medical chart, which causes harm to the patient.
How is Medical Malpractice Proven in a Lawsuit?
There are several elements that must be met before medical malpractice can be established. In order to prove medical malpractice liability, a plaintiff must be able to show the following:
- The medical professional owed the patient a duty to act reasonably and in accordance with the medical standard of care in overseeing the patient’s health (e.g., diagnosing, treating, etc.).
- The medical professional failed to meet the proper standard of care (i.e., their duty) because they were negligent in managing some aspect of the patient’s health. In other words, they breached the duty of care they had to that patient.
- The medical professional’s negligent conduct was both the actual and proximate cause of the patient’s injury.
- The injury resulted in the patient suffering measurable damages.
Additionally, if a lawsuit is specifically filed against an organization or its clerical staff, it must be shown that the medical staff was trained or supervised in a negligent manner.
Some items that may be useful for a plaintiff to submit as evidence to support their claim include medical records, receipts for medical expenses, documents that caused a misdiagnosis or mistreatment to occur, and costs related to their injury (e.g., hospital bills to remedy a surgeon’s mistake, etc.).
What are Some Common Defenses in a Medical Malpractice Claim?
There are several defenses that a defendant to a medical malpractice lawsuit may be able to raise against their claim, including:
- Statute of limitations: The time limit that a person has to file a specific legal claim is known as a “statute of limitations”. Many states require that a plaintiff file a medical malpractice action within two years. As such, if this time limit has expired, then the plaintiff will be barred from bringing the lawsuit and thus will lose their chance to recover for their injuries. Note that these time limits will vary by jurisdiction.
- Contributory negligence: In states that follow contributory negligence theory, if proven, this defense will prevent a plaintiff from recovering for their injuries. The defendant must show that the plaintiff’s negligent conduct contributed to their injuries, so the defendant cannot be held solely responsible for the harm. States that apply the doctrine in full will bar a plaintiff from recovering.
- However, if a state follows modified comparative negligence theory, then plaintiffs who are less than 51% at fault for their injuries may still be able to recover some amount of damages; albeit they will be reduced.
- Lack of proof or fault: If a plaintiff fails to prove that a medical professional fell below the standard duty of care or cannot show that they were the ones responsible for the patient’s injuries, then this may serve as a defense to a medical malpractice claim as well.
What Can I Recover for My Injuries?
Damages in medical malpractice lawsuits primarily cover three areas:
- Economic damages: These refer to monetary amounts that can be measured and specifically calculated based on a particular harm, such as medical expenses, hospital bills, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, and various other out-of-pocket costs.
- Non-economic damages: Non-economic damages, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to calculate since they refer to intangible or somewhat immeasurable injuries like pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of activities, reputational damage, and so forth.
- Punitive damages: Punitive damages are the most elusive out of the type of damages that a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit. They are rarely ever awarded and are only recognized for such lawsuits in a handful of states. In states where they are awarded, however, there are usually damage caps (or limits) on those amounts as well.
Some other remedies that a plaintiff may request include having a medical professional’s license suspended or revoked, and requiring that a medical facility update their policies and/or health and safety procedures.
State Limits on Medical Malpractice Recovery
Despite being able to recover monetary damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a majority of states have enacted statutes that limit the amount of damages that a plaintiff can receive. Such limits or restrictions are generally referred to as “damage caps”.
Damage caps will typically vary by state, meaning that a plaintiff may recover a higher amount for the same exact injury in one state than a plaintiff suffering from the same harm in another state. For instance, many states impose damage caps that max out at around $250,000, whereas other states allow the plaintiff to collect a much higher amount before they are restricted.
In Wisconsin, for example, damages for medical malpractice lawsuits are capped at $750,000, but in California, they are limited to $250,000. The purpose of these limitations is to prevent litigants from abusing the civil court system and from filing frivolous claims.
Additionally, a minority of states do not even impose damage caps at all. Accordingly, if a plaintiff brings a medical malpractice action in Wyoming or Kentucky, they will not be limited in collecting their monetary damages award.
Lastly, there are also a handful of states that prohibit damage caps in situations that involve wrongful death lawsuits. Thus, if a deceased patient’s family member files a wrongful death suit based on a medical malpractice claim in Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, or New York, they will not face restrictions in the amount of damages they can receive in those states.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help with a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit?
Medical malpractice actions often involve serious injuries that can leave a patient feeling drained not only physically, but also emotionally and financially. It does not help that many of these cases involve intricate laws and varying standards. Therefore, you may want to consider hiring a local personal injury lawyer to handle your matter if you believe you have suffered injuries as a result of medical malpractice.
An experienced personal injury lawyer will be able to determine whether you have enough evidence to support your claim, can ensure that your case is filed within the statute of limitations, and can represent you in court if necessary. Alternatively, if your practitioner or the organization wants to settle before going to trial, your lawyer can assist you in negotiating a favorable settlement amount as well.