Legally, medical malpractice occurs when a patient is harmed because a doctor, radiologist or other medical professional failed to perform their professional duties competently.
What “competence” entails will depend on your own personal situation and the doctor’s qualifications; in most lawsuits, your attorney will bring in a relevant medical expert to explain the “standard of care” (the actions or inactions a reasonable doctor would have taken) and how your doctor broke it.
Want To Win A Malpractice Suit? Prove These 4 Things.
That’s a broad definition, and the specific laws on medical malpractice actually vary from state to state. Beyond procedural matters, how long you have to file a malpractice lawsuit depends on where you live. To find out what the time limit, or “statute of limitations,” is in Pennsylvania, click here.
Despite those regional variations, lots about medical malpractice doesn’t change by state. For most patients in most states, proving that a doctor was negligent, and thus committed malpractice, is a matter of proving 4 separate claims.
1. You Had A Doctor-Patient Relationship
This shouldn’t be too hard, but you’ll first have to prove that a doctor-patient relationship existed between you and the medical professional. In other words, you hired the doctor and the doctor consented to being hired. Proving this point should be simple if you visited a doctor at their office and they began treating you.
Not every medical professional owes you a “duty of care.” If you met a doctor on the train, asked for some advice, and the advice turned out to be bad, you wouldn’t be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Essentially, physicians don’t always have to live up to their profession’s standards; only your doctor has to.
2. Your Physician Was Negligent
Here’s where defining that “standard of care” comes in big time. Poor treatment isn’t always medical malpractice. Bad outcomes aren’t always the result of malpractice. Even some mistakes can’t be legally considered negligent.
To prove malpractice, you’ll have to show that a reasonable doctor in the same situation (faced by you as a patient) would have done something differently. Suggested a different treatment altogether, ordered more tests to strengthen a cancer diagnosis or not operated on the incorrect limb; the reasonable doctor’s care would have differed in some critical way that could have prevented your injury.
A standard of care isn’t the best, most competent medical treatment possible. It’s not even the best, most competent treatment available in your area. It’s simply what a “reasonably skillful and careful” doctor would have done.
To really demonstrate this point, you’ll have to get a reasonable doctor. With their help, you’ll define the standard of care that should have been followed in your treatment and identify the place where your doctor’s care fell below that standard.
3. That Negligence Caused You Harm
After proving that your doctor’s actions (or failures to act, which are called “omissions” in malpractice lawsuits) fell below the medical standard, you’ll have to draw a bright, clear line from their negligence to your injuries. Note that medical malpractice lawsuits are civil cases, not criminal ones. As such, you have to prove that it’s more likely than not that a doctor’s negligence caused you harm, not prove it conclusively.
This is still a sticking point in many contested lawsuits. Since most victims of malpractice were either sick or injured to begin with, proving that a doctor’s negligence caused harm that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise can be difficult. This is especially hard in cases of delayed diagnosis, when the link between a physician’s failure to identify a condition and a patient’s worsening prognosis may be altogether unclear.
4. You Suffered Damages, Specific Ones
For court cases, suffering “harm” can’t be nebulous. Although damages do take into account non-physical forms of suffering, you’ll have to put a rough price tag on the doctor’s negligence.
Damages in medical malpractice lawsuits usually fall into two categories:
- Special damages can actually be quantified. Things like medical expenses for treatments that wouldn’t have been necessary and the ongoing costs of a therapy fall under this heading. Wages that you didn’t earn because you couldn’t work and a loss in future earning ability do, too.
- General damages are harder to put in numbers. Physical pain, emotional trauma, a “loss in enjoyment of life,” as legal practitioners put it; forms of suffering that are very real but don’t come with a receipt.
Punitive damages are a third category, but fairly uncommon. These awards are given to victims who have suffered harm at the hands of a particularly careless, or outright reckless, physician. Punitive damages are meant to punish people for committing blatantly negligent, or intentionally injurious acts.
Swayed by arguments (which might not be true) that medical malpractice lawsuits contribute to out-of-control health insurance costs, many states have placed limits (“caps”) on how much patients can win in court. Pennsylvania hasn’t.
Have An Expert On Your Side
Now that we’ve run through the 4 basic things you’ll need to prove in your lawsuit, the critical importance of expert testimony should be clear. In fact, many states legally require a medical expert’s affidavit (a statement written under oath) before patients can even file their initial complaint. Pennsylvania does; according to state law, plaintiffs have to submit a certificate of merit stating that a licensed medical professional believes your doctor’s care fell below acceptable professional standards, before you file a malpractice lawsuit.
Some states have even set up review panels that hear malpractice cases before they’re allowed in court. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them, but sixteen other states (and the US Virgin Islands) have made airing your allegations before a screening board a requirement.