Patients entrust doctors with their lives, health, and livelihoods, and as such, medical malpractice laws medical professionals to high standards, which occasionally remain unmet. When a doctor’s negligence causes injuries and patients suffer damages as a result of the medical professional’s negligence as the proximate cause, a patient most likely has a right to sue the doctor for medical malpractice.
The rules and standards that apply to lawsuits based on a doctor’s negligence vary from state to state, but certain elements are common to all doctor negligence lawsuits. Specifically, each doctor negligence case will focus on four elements:
- Was there a doctor-patient relationship between the doctor and the injured party?
- Did the doctor fail to follow medically-accepted standards in his or her treatment of the patient (this is basic definition of all negligence)?
- Did the doctor’s negligence case an injury?
- Did the person who was injured incur economic or other damages, for example, extra medical costs, lost wages, or pain and suffering?
The Doctor-Patient Relationship and Duty Owed to Provide a Reasonable Standard of Care
A doctor-patient relationship clearly exists when a person schedules an appointment with a physician to address a medical concern. The doctor-patient relationship is not always this clear, however, and if not present, the doctor cannot be held liable for doctor negligence. A person who follows general medical advice that he or she heard from a physician in a news report, for example, does not have a doctor-patient relationship with that physician. A deeper question can exist where a person receives emergency care from a physician who provides “Good Samaritan” care. The definition of doctor-patient relationships and exceptions to those definitions will be different in different states. An attorney who handles lawsuits involving doctor negligence can counsel a party as to whether the relationship will be an issue in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Adherence to Medical Standards and Doctor Negligence
Whether a physician followed accepted medical standards and whether, by failing to follow those standards, the physician is liable for negligence, will frequently be the most hotly-contested issue in any lawsuit alleging a doctor’s negligence. Defining those standards for a particular state or medical practice area will almost always require expert testimony. Many states impose statutory requirements that an expert who is retained to establish those standards must practice in the particular medical field that is at issue n the doctor negligence case.
Once those standards are defined, the physician’s conduct will be examined din detail to determine if he or she is liable for medical professional’s negligence. The facts of each situation will be different, and a detailed factual analysis of the doctor’s conduct will be performed. In most states if most of the evidence suggests that the medical practitioner did follow those standards, he or she will not be liable for negligence.
Did the Doctor’s Negligence Cause Injury?
A person cannot assume that he or she is entitled to monetary damages simply because a doctor was negligent. No damages will be awarded apart from proof that the doctor’s negligence caused some injury. Again, this will require a factual analysis and, if the injury is minor or the injured party was in some was partly responsible for his or her injury, he or she may not receive any monetary compensation for the doctor’s negligence. There is great variation among the states regarding how injuries are perceived, and an injured party’s attorney will provide advice and estimates for damages awards.
Did an Injured Part Suffer Damages?
The costs associated with extended hospital stays and medical expenses imposed on a patient who was injured by doctor’s negligence are all part of the total damages that may be awarded to that person. Certain noneconomic damages for pain and suffering may also be available. To reign in excessive medical costs, many states have placed caps or upper limits on a number of noneconomic damages that can be recovered. Some states also allow punitive damages for particularly extreme cases of negligence where, for example, the doctor’s negligence was willful or egregious.
All patients can and should reasonably hope and expect to receive sound and proper care from their doctors, but when that care falls short of objective expectations and patients suffer injuries, a patient may well be entitled to compensation for our injuries. Attorneys who are well-versed in filing lawsuits to redress a doctor’s negligence can provide the best counsel and guidance to seek and recover that compensation.
For further reading on doctor negligence from the National Institutes of Health: