Medical malpractice generally refers to when the conduct of a doctor, medical staffer, healthcare organization, and/or other medical specialist falls below the standard duty of care required in treating, diagnosing, or managing a patient. This in turn then causes harm to that patient. This departure from the standard duty of care that is required of all medical professionals typically occurs when a medical professional engages in an act of negligence.

A patient who is injured by a negligent medical professional may be able to recover damages for their injuries by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit against the medical professional or entity that caused the harm.

Whether the medical professional or entity can be held liable for the patient’s injuries will depend on a number of factors. These include the facts surrounding the case, the medical malpractice laws of the jurisdiction hearing the case, and whether the plaintiff is able to satisfy the requirements that prove medical malpractice caused their injuries.

Thus, if you believe you have sustained injuries as a result of medical malpractice, you should contact a personal injury lawyer in your area to discuss your options for legal recourse. You may be entitled to significant damages for your injuries and a lawyer can assist you in recovering what you are rightfully owed under the law.

What is the MICRA?

The MICRA refers to a law that was passed by the California legislature in 1975. The acronym stands for the California “Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act” (i.e., “MICRA”), which was enacted as a result of the steadily increasing rates of medical malpractice insurance. Medical malpractice insurance is used to protect and cover certain damages for medical and health care professionals involved in medical malpractice lawsuits.

The MICRA places a limit on the amount of general damages, also known as non-economic damages, that a prevailing plaintiff can recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit. General or non-economic damages are awarded for injuries that are difficult to quantify, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of companionship. Under the Act, these damages will be capped at $250,000.

In addition, the MICRA also places a limit on the amount of attorneys’ fees and permits defendant medical professionals to pay out damages awards over a certain period of time, rather than all at once.

However, the amount a plaintiff can recover for special or economic damages remains uncapped under the Act. Special or economic damages are used to reimburse a plaintiff for out-of-pocket costs related to the injury, such as lost wages, medical bills, and loss of earning capacity.

In order for the MICRA to apply, a case must be brought against a medical professional specifically for professional negligence. Professional negligence refers to a careless or reckless act carried out by a person who holds a professional license (e.g., a doctor, surgeon, etc.).

As an example, suppose a surgeon is negligent while performing surgery and leaves behind medical instruments inside a patient. Eventually, the patient dies from an infection caused by the medical instruments. The patient’s family then sues the surgeon for medical malpractice on behalf of the deceased patient. A jury returns with a verdict for $1 million in general damages. Due to the MICRA, however, the court must limit the general damages to $250,000.

Another scenario in which the MICRA will apply is when a surgeon erroneously removes a patient’s healthy limb or organ, as opposed to a limb or organ that is infected.

For instance, a patient contracts gangrene and as a result, needs their left leg amputated. Due to clerical errors, the patient’s medical chart says that they need their right leg amputated. The surgeon fails to double-check the patient to confirm, which leg actually needs to be amputated and proceeds to operate by following the information provided in the medical record. The patient then sues both the hospital and surgeon for medical malpractice.

The plaintiff wins the case and the jury returns with a verdict of $10 million dollars. The court will then need to distribute the damages in accordance with the MICRA. In this scenario, the hospital will have to pay whatever portion of the damages they are responsible for, regardless of the amount or type of damages.

The surgeon, however, will be limited to paying only $250,000 in general damages (special damages remain uncapped), no matter how much the jury thinks they should pay in general damages. This is because the MICRA only applies to licensed medical professionals, not hospitals or unlicensed staff members. Thus, the hospital will have to pay the full amount of general damages, but the surgeon will be protected by the Act’s restrictions.

What Needs to Be Proved in California’s MICRA Impacted Patients’ Claim?

The elements to prove a MICRA claim are essentially the same as the ones required for California medical malpractice lawsuits that are based on professional negligence. Those elements include:

  • The plaintiff must show that the medical professional had a duty to conform to the level of skill, prudence, and diligence that are typically exhibited by other members in the same profession;
  • That the medical professional breached this duty that they owed to the patient;
  • There was both an actual and proximate causal connection between the medical professional’s actions and the patient’s resulting injury; and
  • That the patient suffered measurable loss or damage due to the medical professional’s negligent behavior.

It should be noted that such cases must be filed before the MICRA statute of limitations expires. According to the provisions laid out in the Act, a plaintiff will only have one year from the date their injury is discovered to file a lawsuit against a negligent medical professional. If a plaintiff suffers an injury, but does not know whether it is the result of medical malpractice, then they will have three years from the date of their injury to file a claim under the law.

What Are Some Examples of California’s Medical Malpractice Claims?

As discussed above, medical malpractice is a legal cause of action that occurs when a medical professional deviates from the standard level of care employed by others in the medical field, which then causes them to injure a patient.

Medical malpractice claims are typically based in tort law, namely, the legal theory of negligence. Whether a medical malpractice case should be based on professional or general negligence, can sometimes cause confusion.

Fortunately, the California Court of Appeal issued a decision that helps legal practitioners to distinguish between the two. The general rule of thumb is to determine who committed the negligent act and whether the act is one of which requires a professional medical license to carry it out.

For example, in a recent case in California, a patient attempted to sue a hospital after being injured by a loose rail on their hospital bed. The lawsuit was brought under the legal theory of general negligence, as opposed to professional negligence.

However, the state’s highest court found that because a doctor ordered the bed to be positioned in a certain way for the purposes of administering treatment, the case should have been based on a claim for medical malpractice and professional negligence instead.

On the other hand, a different medical malpractice case in California in which a licensed surgeon tore a patient’s esophagus while attempting to remove a lump on their collarbone, was properly based on the legal theory of professional negligence.

The surgeon in that case was negligent in diagnosing and rendering treatment on the patient in their care after making a serious mistake. This deviates from the normal actions that other licensed surgeons in the same or a similar situation would have taken.

How Has California’s MICRA Impacted Patients?

The MICRA has applied to medical malpractice cases in California for over 30 years. It has been effective in reducing medical malpractice liability insurance rates, as well as lowering the costs of health care for patients in general. Due to its positive results, several states have followed California’s lead and adopted similar versions of the Act.

However, there has been some debate over whether the Act has actually done more harm than good in regard to injured patients. Some believe that the Act allows negligent doctors to get off easy when really they should suffer greater punishment for causing such egregious harm to a patient.

For example, suppose a patient develops a fatal disease that their doctor could have prevented from if they had properly diagnosed them in time, but failed to do so because they were negligent. Despite the fact that they are dying, that patient will only be allowed to recover $250,000 in damages for their pain and suffering because of the restrictions in the MICRA.

As is evident from the above discussion, the MICRA cap placed on general damages in medical malpractice cases in California appears to let a careless medical professional get away with ruining a patient’s health and/or life, while the patient must struggle to make up for the costs of the doctor’s mistake without additional financial assistance. The Act has yet to be adjusted for inflation since its inception.

Do I Need an Attorney For My Medical Malpractice Case?

Medical malpractice cases often concern serious injuries that may leave a patient feeling drained not only physically, but also financially and emotionally. Such cases usually require legal assistance due to the intricate laws and various standards that apply. Thus, if you believe you have suffered injuries caused by a negligent medical professional, you should contact a California personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.

An experienced California personal injury lawyer will be able to determine whether you have enough evidence to support your case, and if so, can help you prepare and file your case. Your lawyer can also make sure that your case is filed within the time constraints prescribed by the state statute of limitations and can provide representation in court.

In addition, if the medical practitioner or health organization wants to settle the case outside of court instead of going to trial, your lawyer will be able to assist you in negotiating a favorable settlement amount as well.