The Development of a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

Medical malpractice law dates back at least to the recorded case of Stratton v. Swanlond, an English case that was decided in 1374. The plaintiff, who sought treatment for a deformed hand, sued her surgeon after he guaranteed to cure her deformity but was unable to do so.

Her case was dismissed on procedural grounds, yet the court’s reasoning, in that case, is at the foundation of modern medical malpractice lawsuits, namely, physicians and surgeons are charged with exercising all due care in their treatment of their patients. If due care is exercised, then the physician will not be liable for medical malpractice even if the patient’s maladies are not cured.

Early Case Law for U.S. Medical Malpractice Lawsuits summarized

A few of the first medical malpractice cases in the United States followed and expanded upon this reasoning with a breach of contract analysis. That is if a patient paid a physician to cure an illness but the surgeon did not accomplish the cure, then the patient would be entitled to a refund of fees paid to the physician or some similar compensation.

Over time, the laws in both the United States and England (upon which the U.S. legal system is based) evolved away from treating medical malpractice cases as contractual breaches. The father of English common law, Lord Blackstone, deemed injuries caused by medical malpractice to be private wrongs, or torts, laying the remaining groundwork for medical malpractice to be treated under theories of negligence.

Standards for modern medicine did not begin to gel in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The founding of the American Medical Association in 1847 was the catalyst for the development of those standards. Once objective standards were formed, physicians who represented that they were adhering to those standards also exposed themselves to medical malpractice claims in those cases where they did not follow them.

As medical practice became more and more specialized through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the standards for each specialization were simultaneously developed. Medical malpractice lawsuits that are filed in the modern era will look to the unique medical standards that apply to the medical specialty of the physician or treatment center that is the target of the lawsuit.

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in the Modern Age

A modern medical malpractice lawsuit will follow the path of a traditional tort or negligence case. The basic elements of a medical malpractice claim are:

  • The existence of a doctor-patient relationship. If you make an appointment with a doctor for a specific purpose, the relationship exists; if you merely see a doctor on television and adhere to whatever he or she may be discussing, there is no relationship and you have no cause for medical malpractice against that doctor is you suffer an injury
  • The doctor did not exercise reasonable skill and care in his or her treatment of your medical problem. This is the basic statement of all negligence cases and not just medical malpractice lawsuits. The complication that arises in the medical malpractice arena is determining what “reasonable skill and care” is the doctor’s medical specialty
  • The doctor’s negligence caused your injury. If the doctor was negligent but you suffered no injury, there is no basis for a medical malpractice lawsuit. What constitutes an “injury” may be open to question if, for example, the claimed injury is emotional distress that is not immediately observable
  • The injury resulted in quantifiable damages. Those damages include costs for medical services or hospitalization, wages that are missed due to an inability to work, and noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits and the Exercise of Reasonable Skill and Care

Because the practice of medicine has become so specialized, no one statement of an applicable standard of care is possible for every medical malpractice lawsuit. The applicable standard of care and whether the physician-defendant exercised reasonable skill and care are factual matters for determination at trial. Nonetheless, medical malpractice lawsuits frequently address common themes, including whether the physician’s diagnosis was correct, whether he was negligent in his treatment of the patient, and whether he gave adequate information to the patient as to the risks of, and options for different treatments.

The Crucial Role of Type of Medical Sub-Specialty Involved in Malpractice Cases

Medical malpractice lawsuits that center on a misdiagnosis are common in radiology specialties, for example, where the physician misses a spot or a mark on a patient’s X-Ray or CT scan, which is subsequently diagnosed to be cancer or a dangerous hematoma. Negligent treatment claims are common in medical malpractice lawsuits involving virtually every medical specialty.

“Medical treatments” includes a broad spectrum of activities, from simple injections to complex surgeries, all of which require the physician to adhere strictly to the accepted and established standards for those activities. The physician’s obligation to give adequate warnings and disclosures as to the risks involved with every procedure has led to the “informed consent” waivers that patients are frequently asked to sign before receiving treatment.

Even with those waivers, however, a patient who decides to undergo a procedure on the basis of a physician’s recommendation may still have a claim for medical malpractice against the physician if, for example, the documented warnings and risks are not readily understood or if the physician gave extra verbal assurances to the patient not to worry about the risks.

Medical malpractice law has developed in complexity right alongside the medical specialties that are the focus of malpractice lawsuits. Patients who believe they have been injured because of a physician’s negligence will be best served via an early consultation with an attorney who is familiar with the ins and outs of medical malpractice law. The patient should schedule that consultation very quickly after the medical error to allow the attorney to draft and file the medical malpractice lawsuit in compliance with the procedural and other requirements for that lawsuit in the relevant jurisdiction and venue.

For a thorough description of medical malpractice law and standards, see the following links from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Justice: