Medical injury law is a subset of personal injury state legislation specific to the medical profession. It aims to protect the rights of patients when their healthcare providers fail to meet the expected standard of care.
While state laws like damage caps vary, the fundamentals remain the same. When a patient sustains injury due to medical negligence, they can file a claim for their losses. However, medical mistakes are much harder to prove than driver errors. A personal injury law firm would have specialists in medical malpractice law to help navigate the complex process.
Medical malpractice lawsuits happen to roughly one in three US physicians throughout their careers, with the number dropping to 1.8 percent in 2021. However, there was an average of 61 claims per 100 physicians over their entire careers.
Relatively few medical providers face litigation per year. Those who do face lawsuits tend to be the ones sued repeatedly. Many negligence cases also go in the defendant’s favor.
Does medical injury law protect patients by holding healthcare providers accountable for injuries or wrongful deaths? Let’s find out.
|Key Takeaways |
What is medical malpractice?
Medical injury law in the US has its basis in English common law, with rulings developed in various state courts. However, the concept of professional standards of care and skill goes back to ancient times. In 2030 BC, the Code of Hammurabi provided the standard of medical responsibility in rather harsh terms.
Fast forward to 1066, medical malpractice became a recognized legal wrong in England and Rome, as recorded in the courts. It mentions an early medication error case brought against a doctor by a servant and his master. By 1532, legislation started tackling the need for medical expert testimony to establish medical negligence.
A few medical malpractice cases in the US appeared in the 1800s but had little impact on the medical profession. Legal claims began increasing in the 1960s and are relatively common in the 21st Century. All physicians in the US must carry medical malpractice insurance to mitigate their risks as a result.
Other parties that may have liability include nurses, hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and other healthcare service providers.
Unlike most countries, medical injury law in the US is the purview of states rather than the federal government. However, the essential elements of medical malpractice claims apply.
A key component in a medical malpractice lawsuit is the existence of a professional duty owed to the patient. A medical professional such as a physician can only be liable for harm to a patent if they have an established doctor-patient relationship. Doctors do not have this duty to everyone just because they are doctors. It is only when the healthcare provider assumes responsibility for a patient.
In most cases, a doctor-patient relationship forms when a doctor agrees to provide professional services to a patient seeking medical care. The setting is usually a hospital or clinic. Still, it could also take place wherever the physician has a license to practice. For example, suppose a fellow guest at a party who is a doctor examines, diagnoses, and recommends treatment. In that case, the court may construe this as an established doctor-patient relationship.
However, consulting a doctor does not always establish a duty of care. If they do not take any direct action to examine, diagnose, or treat, they do not assume responsibility. Under the no obligation to treat, doctors can choose to treat someone.
A medical malpractice case will not prosper if there is no doctor-patient relationship. The same is true for other parties providing healthcare services.
A breach in the standard of care
Failing to provide generally accepted standards of care is another critical element of medical malpractice claims. The definition of this standard is legal, not medical, and varies slightly by state.
Generally, the standard refers to the degree of skill, knowledge, and care of a reasonably competent healthcare provider. For example, a qualified obstetrician knows when a Caesarean section is necessary. An obstetrician, in similar circumstances, who waits too long to do a C-section, resulting in harm to the mother or baby, may be found negligent.
Another common term with a different medical malpractice threshold is “reasonable.” The bar for reasonableness in ordinary negligence relies on a layman’s interpretation. In the medical profession, the element of risk is always present. Reasonable, in this context, means performing their duties according to accepted practice.
Healthcare professionals cannot guarantee a positive outcome because there may be unexpected complications. For example, an anesthesiologist may do everything right during a procedure, but the patient might still have an adverse reaction.
However, some states offer medical professionals an absolute defense with the “two schools of thought” doctrine. It states that following one medically acceptable course of action over another absolves the defendant of medical injury liability.
Using the defense means no malpractice if the defendant can prove their treatment was acceptable. However, it’s best to consult a medical malpractice lawyer to assess your case.
Negligence is the injury’s proximate cause
After establishing a breach of a healthcare professional’s duty of care, the next critical element is causation. You can hold a doctor liable if you prove a direct link between their actions and your injuries. A proximate cause refers to the event that leads to another incident or cause-and-effect relationship.
For instance, suppose you complain about persistent pain in your left side to your doctor, who orders tests. The tests are inconclusive, but the doctor diagnoses it as gas and puts you on antacids. It turns out you have diverticulitis, and one of the infected pouches bursts, causing peritonitis. The failure to diagnose is the proximate cause of your condition going untreated, resulting in more harm.
Sometimes, an intervening cause may mitigate the doctor’s liability. Taking the example above, suppose you consulted another doctor who ordered a barium test. You had an allergic reaction that damaged your kidneys right before the onset of peritonitis. You can file a claim against both doctors in that case, and they share liability for the damages.
The injury resulted in damages
Suppose the doctor failed to diagnose your diverticulitis. However, the delay in diagnosis did not result in physical or emotional suffering or enduring hardship. In that case, you don’t have a legal basis to sue the doctor.
You have a medical malpractice claim if it results in considerable damage, such as a life-threatening condition like peritonitis. Consequently, you can claim compensation for economic and non-economic damages. These include:
- Medical expenses
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of income
- Rehabilitation and therapy
- Future medical care
- Loss of quality of life
Determining if you can file a case will depend on providing evidence like medical records and expert testimony. An experienced medical malpractice lawyer can evaluate and file your claim based on the harm suffered.
Informed consent is not an element of medical negligence, per se. Still, it is one of the common bases for a medical injury claim. Doctors have a duty to explain the risks, alternatives, and expected outcomes of treatment options. They must also explain the consequences of refusing treatment. This helps patients make an informed decision when giving (or refusing) their consent to go through with treatment.
Failing to obtain informed consent can make the healthcare provider liable for injury or harm, even if there was no negligence.
An exception would be when a healthcare provider treats someone in an emergency like a car accident or drowning. The Good Samaritan rule in tort states that a doctor does not need the patient’s consent to render aid in this situation. It absolves them from liability for serious injuries or wrongful death, provided they did not act with gross negligence.
Establishing these elements of medical malpractice requires a competent lawyer’s experience, knowledge, and skills. A lawyer or law firm can give legal advice on your case.
Types of Error and Malpractice
Medical negligence comes in many forms. These include the following events:
- Failure to follow up
- Failure to order proper tests or act on results
- Leaving things inside the patient’s body after surgery
- Misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose
- Operating on the wrong body part
- Potential hospital-acquired fatal infections
- Premature discharge
- Pressure ulcers or bedsores
- Giving the wrong dosage or medication
- Surgical errors
- Unnecessary surgery
Historical studies suggest medical errors are a leading cause of death, third to heart disease and cancer, in the US. However, it is unclear exactly how many wrongful deaths result from malpractice. The jury in one Ohio case favored the defendants because the plaintiff failed to prove causation.
Who can be liable for medical malpractice?
Most people focus on the liability of physicians and hospitals when considering a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, it may also involve other parties.
Those directly involved in the healthcare or treatment of a patient are the typical defendants in a medical injury claim. These include physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, therapists, and radiologists.
When patients go to a hospital, nursing home, or clinic, they have a right to expect certain service standards. These facilities may be liable for damages if inadequate or untrained staff, defective equipment, or shoddy protocols contribute to the patient’s injuries.
However, some states, like Colorado, may have exceptions. Hospitals are typically not liable for the negligence of independently contracted physicians under the Health Care Availability Act.
Pharmaceutical companies are liable for medical devices and drugs due to a failure to warn or defect under product liability law. For example, the FDA recalled a drug called Zantac for its association with developing specific cancers. However, it is medical malpractice if a doctor prescribes the recalled medication without warning the patient of the risks.
Laboratories and diagnostic centers
Laboratories and diagnostic centers take samples, conduct tests, and interpret the results. They can be liable for the damages if they make mistakes that lead to a misdiagnosis.
Medical staff and employees
Administrative and support staff in healthcare facilities may be personally liable for negligence acts if they result in patient harm. One example is when inadequate disinfecting of the environment leads to an infection.
Vicarious liability of employers may sometimes apply in healthcare facilities if an employee’s actions lead to patient harm. For instance, bedsores resulting from attendant neglect in nursing homes would constitute medical malpractice.
In general, public entities are immune from liability. However, they may be liable for injuries or wrongful death if it is a government-run medical facility. These include places such as a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital.
Specific laws governing medical malpractice cases vary by jurisdiction. The liability and parties involved may differ depending on the state. If you have a medical malpractice case, consult a medical malpractice lawyer. They can help you understand the applicable legal principles and parties to your situation.
Does medical injury law hold healthcare providers accountable?
The primary goal of medical injury law is to protect patients from unnecessary harm. It allows injured parties or their loved ones to initiate a civil action to hold healthcare providers liable for damages.
One survey estimates an average insurance payout of $7.5 billion yearly in the US for medical malpractice from 1990 to 2020. While most of the 68 claims per 100 doctors got dismissed or settled out of court, some notable cases resulted in court verdicts in the millions.
Moreover, a medical malpractice lawsuit will bring attention to the medical professional’s or facility’s shortcomings. The point is to initiate an investigation by the appropriate authorities, such as the medical board or certifying body. When warranted, these could result in disciplinary action, such as suspension or probation. In some cases, the erring professional may lose their license to practice.
The problem is the complexity of medical malpractice claims can make it difficult for most plaintiffs to get justice. Even a seemingly clear-cut case can have unforeseen complications.
As a result, most physicians (89 percent) have no claims against them. However, 2.3 percent had two or more paid claims, accounting for 38.9 percent of all medical malpractice cases.
These numbers seem to indicate no improvement in the behavior of healthcare providers with a history of malpractice. Medical injury law may hold them financially accountable, but the insurance companies pay the claims.
One investigation shows that doctors with multiple adverse events against them received disciplinary actions from their state medical boards. However, many continue to practice by moving to another state, endangering the health of more patients.
Nevertheless, medical injury holds erring or negligent healthcare professionals and facilities accountable insofar as financial damages go. It does not prevent careless or reckless behavior of medical professionals, but it helps victims of medical malpractice get compensation.
Did you know?
Previous studies indicate that at least 210,000 patients die annually due to medical negligence in a hospital. However, it may be nearer 400,000.
Get Help With Medical Injury Law for Your Malpractice Claim
People expect their healthcare providers to keep them safe and healthy, but errors, mistakes, and complications happen due to negligence. Medical injury law holds the medical profession accountable and allows victims of medical malpractice to get compensation for their losses.
However, medical malpractice lawsuits are complex and require significant resources to build. You need a competent medical malpractice lawyer in your state to negotiate with insurers and represent you in court.
The Medical Malpractice Center is a valuable source of information for personal injury and other legal topics. The site also has access to a network of established law firms and competent lawyers in all 50 US states and Canada. Visit the site for a free consultation and case evaluation today to get help.
Medical injury law can protect your rights to compensation for preventable harm, but you need to apply it. Find a medical malpractice lawyer on The Medical Malpractice Center website.
FAQs on Medical Injury Law
You can find the provisions and procedures for medical liability in Houston in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Title 4, Chapter 74.
The California Code of Civil Procedure, particularly Section 340.5, limits the filing of a cause of action for medical malpractice to three years.