Medical Negligence Defenses

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 What Is Medical Negligence?

The term “medical negligence” refers to legal claims involving injuries caused by medical professionals. This is a particular form of negligence. To prove medical negligence, it must be shown that the medical professional breached their duty of care to the patient, that the breach was the direct and actual cause of the patient’s injuries, and that the patient’s losses can be measured or calculated.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are often based on medical negligence. A medical negligence claim can be brought against many different parties, including doctors, surgeons, nurses, or other hospital personnel. In some states, the amount of damages that can be recovered in a medical negligence claim is limited. When a surgeon fails to remove a foreign object from a patient’s body after a surgical procedure, that is an example of medical negligence.

What Is Required to Prove Medical Negligence?

Proving medical negligence is similar to proving most other forms of negligence.

In general, the plaintiff must prove four elements:

  • The medical personnel owed them a duty of care.
  • The duty of care was breached or violated.
  • The breach was the cause of the person’s injuries or losses.
  • The losses can be calculated with assurance.

Most medical negligence claims involve issues in defining “duty of care.” Under most circumstances, a medical professional is expected to exercise the same standard of care that an individual with similar training and background would use under similar circumstances.

Nurses have received very different training than surgeons, so they may be held to a different standard of care. Surgeons may also be held to a different standard of care than surgeons who work in another field. Though this may seem illogical, medical standards are somewhat uniform and can be defined by both medical textbooks and industry standards.

A medical expert witness is used when scientific, technical, or specialized testimony will assist the jury in understanding the evidence or helping to resolve a dispute.

What Are Some Medical Negligence Defenses?

Due to the variety of defenses that may be raised (depending on the facts of the case), medical negligence can sometimes be difficult to prove. Examples include:

  • Patient negligence: In some jurisdictions, a damages award may be limited (or even prohibited) if the patient’s own negligence caused or contributed to their injuries
  • No breach of duty: it may be a defense if the plaintiff cannot prove that the physician or doctor actually breached their duty of care. Different standards apply depending on the type of physician involved and their background experience level.
  • Litigating the wrong party: Negligence requires proof that the defendant was responsible for the damages. When liability cannot be fully traced to the proper party, this can serve as a defense.
  • Uncertain damages: To prevent the filing of meaningless or frivolous lawsuits, courts require that the damages be calculable to a reasonable degree of certainty. The court will not award damages when damages cannot be calculated (for example, pain or other vague symptoms).

Therefore, medical negligence defenses in a medical malpractice claim often depend on how the plaintiff presents their case to the court. If the patient is in the least bit unclear or inaccurate about any aspect of their complaint, it will seriously hinder their chances of recovering. Poorly filed cases may even be dismissed without the plaintiff’s chance to present their case.

Patient Negligence a Defense to Medical Negligence

Because, as noted above, the majority of medical malpractice lawsuits are based on negligence, defenses to negligence claims will usually prevent an individual from recovering damages for medical malpractice. The patient may have been injured due to their own negligence rather than due to the negligence of the healthcare provider.

The defendant may raise contributory negligence as a defense if a patient contributed to or caused their own injuries. As previously noted, contributory negligence may reduce the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover.

Moreover, as discussed previously, contributory negligence may prevent the plaintiff from recovering at all. Medical malpractice claims can be defended by several different types of conduct, including:

  • By their own negligence, the patient has caused their injuries or harm;
  • There was no mitigation or reduction of the patient’s own damages, or their actions resulted in greater injuries;
  • The patient signed an informed consent document or waiver and assumed the risk of any injuries;
  • The patient failed to disclose important data or information to the healthcare professional;
  • The harm suffered was an unknown risk that could not be avoided;
  • No measurable harm was caused to the patient as a result of the negligence; and
  • The patient engaged in behavior that disrupted the chain of causation linking the malpractice to their injury.

If an individual has recently undergone medical treatment or is about to undergo a medical procedure, they should avoid the conduct discussed above. They may not be able to recover as much in the event of a medical malpractice case if they engage in those behaviors.

Contributory Negligence

Often, medical professionals aren’t the only ones responsible for an injury. A medical professional who can demonstrate that the injury would not have occurred if the patient had not acted negligently may have a valid defense against a malpractice claim.

For example, suppose a patient fails to disclose key details of their medical history or mixes prescriptions against the doctor’s orders. In that case, the doctor is not responsible for any injuries that result.

Respectable Minority Principle

A medical professional may pursue a new or more radical form of treatment to treat a patient effectively. Despite the decision being outside the medical mainstream, the doctor may have a solid defense to a medical malpractice claim if a respectable minority of medical professionals backs the line of treatment. The doctor must first inform the patient of the risks involved. (Failure to adequately inform a patient of potential risks can lead to a claim of lacking informed consent.)

Good Samaritan Laws

“Good Samaritan” laws protect people who come to the aid of those in medical distress.

Physicians, nurses, and other medical experts are often specifically covered by such laws. If a doctor assists someone in an emergency situation, they will be protected from civil liability if anything goes wrong during the rescue. The general rule is that a medical professional who voluntarily helps someone owes that individual the same duty of care and treatment as that of a reasonably competent doctor under similar or the same circumstances.

Statute of Limitations

Medical negligence actions are limited in time by state law. There are states that have adopted the “discovery rule,” which holds that the statute of limitations doesn’t begin until the injury is discovered. If the medical professional can demonstrate that the patient discovered the injury at a specific point and that the statute of limitations has since lapsed, the case can be dismissed.

Further Resources

Medical malpractice is a particularly complex and confusing area of the law. A medical malpractice attorney can help you understand your legal rights and responsibilities as a patient if you believe you have a claim.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Medical Negligence Defenses?

An important part of winning any lawsuit is knowing any defenses that the other side may raise. If you need to file a claim for medical negligence, you may need to hire a qualified personal injury lawyer for advice and representation.

An attorney can explain how medical malpractice laws work in your area and help you determine if you should anticipate any defenses to your case.


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