Understanding Medical Malpractice: Causes, Consequences, and Legal Recourse

People expect to get better when they deal with healthcare providers. Medical professionals are supposed to safeguard the health of their patients by providing an established standard of care. However, medical malpractice is more common and harder to prove than you might think.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), 31 percent of physicians have been defendants in medical malpractice lawsuits at some point in their careers. The survey also showed that about 65 percent of cases were dropped or dismissed. Of the six percent that went to trial, 89 percent resulted in a favorable verdict for the defendant.

Victims of medical malpractice injuries and wrongful death face an uphill legal battle. The success of your claim needs to understand what medical malpractice entails and how to handle it. Because it is so complex, getting competent legal advice right from the start is advisable. The Medical The Personal Injury Center can help you with both.

Let’s dive in.

Key Takeaways
  • Among the causes of medical malpractice include negligence, poor communication, and inadequate training.
  • The consequences of medical malpractice affect injured patients, their families, medical professionals, and industry.
  • Suing for malpractice requires the special legal knowledge and skills of medical malpractice attorneys in your jurisdiction.

Causes of Medical Malpractice

Medical malpractice does not happen in isolation. In most cases, identifying the underlying cause can help pinpoint the liable parties and prevent future incidents.

Negligence and deviating from the standard of care

The most frequent basis for personal injury lawsuits is negligence, generally defined as the act or failure to act that results in harm. In medical malpractice, negligence refers explicitly to deviations from the standard of care.

Four critical elements must be present to prosper in negligence-based personal injury and medical malpractice cases. These are a duty of providing standard care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. The first two elements relate directly to the standard of care.

The tricky part about medical negligence is defining the standard of care. Most people expect perfect results when they visit their doctors or go to the hospital for treatment. However, medical professionals are not held to a standard of perfection.

The established standard of care is a fluid concept based on custom. Historically, the standard of care is a reasonably safe way of doing things as determined by customary practice in the same profession. For example, suppose most surgeons treat acute appendicitis by performing a laparoscopic appendectomy. That would be the standard of care.

When a medical professional deviates from the customary practice and harms the patient, it could be a medical malpractice case. However, it is essential to note that medical professionals have a lot of leeway regarding their therapeutic decisions.

A physician using a different therapeutic approach is not automatically negligent, even if it produces a bad result. The 1995 Hall v. Hilbun case judge said, “A physician does not guarantee recovery… A competent physician is not liable per se for a mere error of judgment, mistaken diagnosis, or the occurrence of an undesirable result.”

The plaintiff must prove the deviation posed an unreasonable risk to the patient. It will not be easy, given the burden of proof required for medical malpractice.

Communication errors among healthcare providers

Failure to communicate is not merely a subject of comedic parlance. Communication errors in the healthcare setting can result in serious harm or death. A survey of 23,000 medical malpractice lawsuits shows that more than 30 percent are due to communication failures.

Communication issues may include the following:

  • Miscommunication about a patient’s condition
  • Inadequate documentation
  • Failing to read medical records
  • Inadequate informed consent
  • Lack of response to patient complaints
  • Insufficient knowledge of medicines
  • Incomplete follow-up instructions
  • Wrong results given to the patient
  • Language barriers

Cases involving poor communication resulted in low severity (12 percent), medium severity (44 percent), and high-severity injuries, including death (44 percent). The survey also reported that cases resulting in compensation to the victim were highest with obstetrics cases, averaging $944,000.

Inadequate training and competence

The medical industry pays much attention to the competence and training of licensed professionals such as doctors and nurses. However, hospital and clinic staff also have significant responsibilities when caring for patients. They must have proper training to ensure they can perform their tasks competently.

Poor hygiene, improper disinfecting of instruments and surfaces, or inattentiveness when assisting patients can all lead to serious harm. For example, an orderly who doesn’t know how to carry a patient can result in unintended injuries. Even the patient intake process done by an inexperienced staffer can lead to incorrect medical histories, which can be disastrous.

Fatigue and understaffing

The burnout rate for medical professionals is higher than that of other professions. One study indicates that half of physicians and a third of nurses suffer from burnout. Another study addresses the association between burnout and medical errors. Among the symptoms include emotional exhaustion and depression.

The physical toll of long shifts and overflowing wards can also lead to fatigue. The stress and chronic understaffing result in a higher risk of mistakes and patient injury. A doctor tired from lack of sleep may make a misdiagnosis, while a nurse may give a patient the wrong medication.

Equipment and technology failures

Technological advances in medical equipment have improved the prognosis for many patients. However, reliance on technology can backfire as potential vulnerabilities can lead to serious or fatal errors in treatment. One report revealed 53 percent of IoT medical devices, such as IV pumps and patient monitoring systems, are vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Poorly trained doctors and staff can lead to the incorrect operation of medical devices, leading to treatment or medication delivery errors. Inadequate infrastructure, such as poor or slow internet connections, can also lead to patient injuries and death.

Common Types of Medical Malpractice

Medical professionals take the Hippocratic oath primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm.” Although its origins and attribution to Hippocrates are debatable, it serves as the basis for their duty of care. The focus has always been to prevent patients from experiencing further harm and improve their condition, if possible. When medical professionals deviate from their standard of care, it can result in one of the following types of malpractice.

Misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis

A misdiagnosis is when a medical practitioner incorrectly identifies a patient’s condition or illness, resulting in the wrong treatment. The patient may not be worse off, but their condition does not get better. Sometimes, the treatment could result in harm to the patient. In that case, it is medical malpractice.

On the other hand, delayed diagnosis is when a doctor fails to diagnose a patient for any condition until later. That means delayed treatment, which could be fatal for diseases like cancer.

Reasons for misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis include the following scenarios where the physician:

  • Fails to recognize the patient’s symptoms;
  • Requests the wrong tests;
  • Misinterprets test results or misses critical indicators; or
  • Fails to take the patient’s medical history into account

A meta-analysis of global malpractice studies indicates that at least 26 percent of cases are due to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis. This type of medical malpractice is the most common.

A malpractice claim based on misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis requires proof it was due to the physician’s breach of duty. Since medicine is not an exact science, it is critical to keep meticulous medical records as evidence.

Surgical errors

The AMA study shows that general surgeons are the most frequent subjects of malpractice lawsuits. Alarmingly, about half have been sued more than once for negligent errors like ligating the wrong blood vessel or puncturing an organ. Other cases involve operating on the wrong site and leaving sponges or instruments in the patient’s body.

Surgical errors may also occur postoperatively by nurses. They may give the patient the wrong medication or fail to notice signs of distress during recovery. Victims of surgical errors may file a medical malpractice lawsuit for these issues.

Medication errors

About 8,000 die every year from medication errors in the US. It happens when a medical professional makes a mistake in dispensing or prescribing medicines. Common examples include giving the incorrect drug, prescribing the wrong dosage, or failing to account for drug interactions. Sometimes, it involves getting confused with similar-looking or sounding medications or making mistakes with compounding drugs.

Doctors prescribe the wrong medication or dosage more often than you might believe. It occurs in at least 5.6 percent of all medical malpractice claims. They are also notorious for bad handwriting, so the nurse or pharmacist might misread a prescription. Sometimes, the problem is when the medication is given to the wrong patient.

Birth injuries

Giving birth today might not seem serious, but it is dangerous for both mother and child. The CDC reports 1,205 women died while giving birth in 2021, translating to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Infants have it worse, although their chances of survival are improving. The infant mortality rate in 2023 is 5.48 per 1,000, a 1.2 percent decline from 2022. It was 5.614 in 2021. To put that in perspective, about 20,000 children died in childbirth in 2021.

However, not all childbirth tragedies end in death. Childbirth is a traumatic experience, and injuries are common. Birth injuries occur in about 25 per 1,000 live births, although many are minor that resolve without treatment. However, some injuries are more severe and may result in cerebral palsy, paralysis, or seizure disorders.

Some birth injuries warranting a malpractice lawsuit may not even occur during the delivery. Prenatal examination failure to diagnose a mother’s medical condition that could harm the baby, such as preeclampsia or HIV, is negligence. In some cases, the fact of a pregnancy could be the basis for a lawsuit.

A birth injury lawsuit may be due to the following circumstances:

  • Wrongful conception despite ligation, abortion, or other medical intervention
  • Failure to detect or inform the parents of congenital or genetic abnormalities of the fetus or the risks of conception
  • Failure to diagnose maternal conditions that could lead to death or injury
  • Delivery injuries due to the failure to act quickly, monitor the conditions of the mother and baby, use of unnecessary force, or misuse of birthing tools

Birth defects are not medical malpractice, per se, except in some circumstances. A pregnant mother’s exposure to a toxic substance leading to a congenital disability is not due to the doctor’s negligence. However, when a medical professional’s actions or inaction led to a long-term injury to a child, you can sue.

Anesthesia errors

About 28 percent of anesthesiologists have faced at least one lawsuit, indicating a disturbing frequency of anesthesia errors. Most of these errors result in severe harm or death, so while less common than surgical errors, they are more dangerous.

Examples of anesthesia errors that could lead to litigation include the following scenarios:

  • Failure to identify possible complications from the patient’s medical history
  • Neglecting to provide the patient with preoperative instructions to avoid injury, such as avoiding solid food
  • Failure to monitor vital signs adequately
  • Utilization of too much or too little anesthesia
  • Utilization of defective equipment
  • Incorrect endotracheal intubation

Any error or miscalculation in anesthesia can have devastating consequences for patients and their families. A negligent anesthesiologist may be liable for damages associated with a permanent injury, brain damage, or patient death.

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Legal Recourse for Medical Malpractice

Victims of medical negligence often face significant challenges after the fact. Legal recourse for medical malpractice allows them to hold liable parties accountable and receive compensation for their losses. These include, but are not limited to, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost income.

However, medical malpractice claims require in-depth knowledge of medical and legal principles. Most people have neither the time nor resources to acquire it to build a credible case. Consulting a medical malpractice attorney is critical for effectively handling such a complex issue. They can assess a claim’s validity by examining if it has the requisite elements.

Elements of a medical malpractice claim

A competent lawyer will determine if the four elements required for a medical malpractice claim are present before anything else. The first is the duty of care, typically based on the professional connection between the plaintiff and defendant. For example, a delayed diagnosis claim must have an acknowledged doctor-patient relationship. Without that, the healthcare provider has no responsibility to act according to accepted medical standards.

Suppose that duty exists, and the healthcare provider breached it by acting negligently or deviating from the accepted standard of care. That establishes the second element of malpractice. However, a claim has no legal standing if the breach is not the direct or proximate cause of an injury or death.

For example, a pharmacist misread a prescription for diabetes medication and gave the wrong one to a patient. However, the patient suffered pain from an infection. In that scenario, the pharmacist’s action is not the direct cause of the patient’s suffering.

The case is otherwise if the prescription was for an antibiotic and the pharmacist gave the wrong dosage. It satisfies both causation and the damages elements. In that situation, the injured victim could claim economic and non-economic damages for their losses, including pain and suffering.

Statute of limitations and filing deadlines

However, proving the four elements of negligence is not enough. The plaintiff must also file a complaint within the prescribed time. This period is known as the statute of limitations, which varies from state to state.

You should note that some states provide a separate statute of limitations for medical malpractice. Florida, for instance, has a two-year limit for car accidents and medical malpractice. Conversely, California provides two years for personal injury in general and three years for medical malpractice.

Filing a lawsuit within the deadlines might not be as easy as it sounds, however. Florida requires an extensive pre-suit process as described in Section 766-106 of the Florida Statutes. Since this entails consulting a panel of experts, you might find yourself up a creek without a paddle. A medical malpractice lawyer in Florida will expedite this process for you.

Another complication is when the statute of limitations starts. Some states identify it as the date of the causative action, i.e., surgery. Others place it on the date of discovery or when the patient found out they sustained an injury. One example is experiencing pain from damage resulting from a misplaced instrument.

Damage caps for medical malpractice cases are also something you should know. Thirty-three states currently impose a limit on non-economic damage, most with qualifying exceptions. No state imposes caps on economic damages. For example, Alaska, Kansas, and Idaho cap non-economic damages at $250,000, while New Hampshire sets it at $875,000.

Gathering evidence and expert testimony

All personal injury claims or complaints require evidence, and the onus of the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. However, the evidence needed to prove the elements of medical malpractice tends to be more challenging, particularly when proving breach and causation.

Proving medical negligence typically includes the following types of evidence:

  • Medical and hospital records
  • Inferred negligence (res ipsa loquitur)
  • Expert witness statements
  • Healthcare policies and regulations
  • Documents proving incorrect prescriptions
  • Diagnostic test results
  • Non-medical witness statements
  • Proof of damages, including hospital bills, loss of income, etc.
  • Declaration of the injury victim’s experience

Plaintiffs must prove liability in personal injury claims with a preponderance of the evidence. The more proof you have, the easier it is to establish fault. However, medical malpractice typically hinges on the opinions expressed by expert witnesses. These are competent medical professionals similarly situated to the defendant, meaning they are in the same specialty and locality.

Settlements and court trials

One study suggests that medical malpractice is a leading cause of death in the US. Medical malpractice laws hold negligent medical professionals accountable to compensate victims and prevent the same harm from happening in the future. 

However, given how difficult it is to prove medical negligence, most claims in court end up being dismissed or favoring the defendant. That is especially true when victims fail to obtain qualified legal representation.

The good news is that most medical professionals have malpractice insurance that handles most out-of-court claims. About one in three victims get compensation for their claims, 95 percent through an insurance settlement.

Victims can file a claim in court or go straight to the insurance company. In either case, they must provide the same evidence. The difference is the process can go much faster than a trial if you have competent legal representation. Insurers will offer a settlement if you provide enough evidence to indicate liability.

Insurers must pay medical malpractice damages, whether in a settlement or a court verdict. That motivates them to settle a claim rather than go through a trial. Of course, a settlement offer may be much lower than you can get in a court verdict so that you can roll the dice.

Given the odds, you must have a solid case to go to court. Experienced trial lawyers can advise if you should accept an offer or let the court decide.

Did you know?

Older physicians (55 and over) are statistically more likely to be sued for malpractice than those younger than 40.

Get Legal Guidance for Your Malpractice Case

Medical malpractice is more common than you think and can be challenging to pursue. Medical injury laws protect victims but also provide healthcare providers with the benefit of the doubt. As a result, medical malpractice can be difficult to prove without competent legal guidance.

The Medical The Personal Injury Center helps victims find the resources they need. Our blog articles can help you understand the basics of medical malpractice and the applicable laws. We can also help you find experienced lawyers to assess and build a case. You can book a free consultation on our site to help you get started.

Proving medical malpractice requires special legal skills and knowledge. Visit The Medical The Personal Injury Center for more information.

FAQs on Malpractice

The average payout for medical malpractice ranges from $10,000 for minor cases to over $1 million for permanent injuries. However, remember that juries may award damages that exceed the caps in some states. The payout will also depend on many factors. Consult your lawyer for a more accurate computation.

Yes, a pharmacist is a medical professional. Suppose they give the wrong medication or instructions for taking it. That makes them liable for resulting harm to the patient.

There is a subtle but fundamental difference between malpractice and negligence for nurses. Malpractice would involve failing to follow the standard of care procedures, such as failing to turn the patient to avoid bedsores. An example of negligence is when a nurse fails to properly monitor a patient's vital signs. Either may result in a medical malpractice lawsuit.