The Role of Negligence in Medical Malpractice Cases
When people seek treatment at a hospital or from a medical provider for their injuries or illnesses, they rarely worry that the care they will receive will be substandard. Unfortunately, however, some healthcare professionals deliver substandard care to patients and make critical errors that could cause harm. Medical errors are much more common than you might think. Researchers at Johns Hopkins completed a study that was published in the British Medical Journal in 2016, finding that medical mistakes result in an annual average of 250,000 deaths in the U.S. This makes medical errors the third leading cause of preventable death in the country. Unfortunately, many of these medical errors are caused by negligence after healthcare providers fail to provide treatment meeting the expected standard of care for their professions.
People who are harmed by medical providers who have engaged in medically negligent practices might have a legal right to pursue malpractice claims. However, not every instance of medical negligence will rise to the level of medical malpractice, and being unhappy with the outcome of treatment does not mean that you have a viable claim. To help you understand medical malpractice claims and the role that negligence plays in them, the medical malpractice lawyers in Philadelphia at the law firm of Raynes & Lawn have included information about medical negligence and when it might amount to malpractice.
What Is Negligence?
Negligence is a legal term that refers to situations in which someone engages in an activity that violates a duty of care. Most personal injury cases involve negligence causes of action. People have a general duty of care to others to behave responsibly and avoid doing things that could cause injuries to others.
For example, automobile collision claims frequently involve negligence causes of action against the at-fault drivers. All drivers in Pennsylvania owe a duty of care to others on the road around them to exercise caution while driving and to follow traffic laws. When a motorist violates that duty of care by speeding, texting on their cell phone, driving while intoxicated, or following too close, that driver could be at-fault in an accident that results from their actions. The driver’s violation of the duty of care they owe to others is an example of negligence. When a motorist causes an accident because of engaging in negligent conduct, they might be liable to pay compensation to any victims for their injuries, property damage, and other losses.
Negligence plays a role in most types of personal injury cases, including medical malpractice claims. However, in the medical context, medical negligence does not always rise to the level of malpractice. You will only have a cognizable claim if the care you received amounted to malpractice as recognized by medical experts.
Understanding Medical Negligence
Just like other people, medical professionals owe a duty of care to provide competent treatment to their patients. However, the standard of care that is expected of medical professionals varies based on the field of practice, the region in which the provider practices, and whether they are a specialist. A doctor or another healthcare provider must provide treatment at the same level of competence that a similarly situated provider would provide to patients under the same treatment conditions and in the same geographic area. For example, a general practice physician in Philadelphia would not be expected to provide the same type of care as a cardiologist in the same area and would also not be expected to meet the same standard of care as another general practice physician practicing in a city located across the U.S. in Los Angeles.
Medical specialists have a heightened duty of care as compared to other physicians. For example, an oncologist would be expected to properly diagnose a cancerous tumor while a general practice doctor might not be expected to do so. However, in certain cases, a general practice physician would be expected to diagnose a patient’s condition when the symptoms are obvious. For example, if a patient presents with symptoms that clearly indicate they are experiencing a heart attack, a doctor should be expected to recognize the signs and send for emergency help.
When a doctor or another medical provider fails to meet the expected standard of care and delivers incompetent treatment, the provider or doctor has failed to meet their legal obligation to the patient and is medically negligent.
In medicine, negligence happens when a provider’s care falls below what another provider in the same area would provide under similar circumstances and thus violates their professional obligations. In some cases, a provider who has engaged in medical negligence might be liable for malpractice, but that is not always the case. As a threshold matter, Philadelphia medical malpractice law firms investigate potential claims to determine whether a provider’s care amounted to negligence. They will then need to figure out whether the negligent treatment amounted to malpractice before agreeing to accept representation.
Expected Medical Standard of Care
As mentioned above, the expected medical standard of care will vary based on where the provider practices, and their skills, education, training, and field. Because of this, Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyers work closely with medical experts in the same fields and areas as the providers to determine the expected medical standard care for the provider in a particular case. For example, a nurse wouldn’t be expected to meet the same standard of care as a surgeon. Similarly, a dentist would have a different expected standard of care than a chiropractor.
Once the relevant standard of care is determined, the attorney and medical expert will examine the treatment the healthcare professional delivered to determine whether it deviated from the standard of care. If it did and fell below what would reasonably have been expected, it would be medical negligence.
In addition to actions, omissions can also amount to medical negligence. For example, if a doctor failed to refer a patient to an oncologist despite an imaging scan showing a noticeable tumor, that omission could amount to medical negligence.
Examples of Medical Negligence
Medical negligence can occur in numerous ways. The following are some examples of what might constitute medical negligence:
- Anesthesiologist delivering too much or too little anesthetic to a patient preparing for surgery
- Pharmacist filling a prescription with the wrong dose for a patient
- Doctor misdiagnosing a patient with an ankle sprain when they have a fracture
- Physician failing to diagnose a patient showing obvious signs of a heart attack
- Emergency room physician discharging a patient too early without providing treatment or proper referrals
- Nurse administering medication to the wrong patient in a hospital
- Doctor prescribing a drug that a patient is allergic to or that has an adverse interaction with other medications the patient is already taking
- Physician failing to obtain patient’s informed consent for an elective procedure
- Obstetrician applying excessive force when using birth-assistive devices while delivering a baby
- Obsetrician failing to perform an emergency Caesarean section when there are signs of maternal or fetal distress
- Surgeon operating on the wrong bodily area or the wrong patient
- Surgical team failing to properly sterilize instruments
- Surgeon and surgical staff failing to monitor a patient during the recovery period following surgery
- Surgeon leaving an instrument or gauze behind inside of a patient
There are many other forms that medical negligence can take beyond the above-listed examples. A provider’s actions or omissions during treatment or recovery that fall below the expected standard of care fall within the definition of medical negligence.
Medical Negligence and Injury
It’s important to note that not all instances of medical negligence will result in a patient’s injury. For example, if your doctor told you that you were fine when you were experiencing symptoms of an illness, that would be negligent. However, if you promptly sought a second opinion and learned that you had early-stage cancer and received proper treatment, your original doctor’s negligence did not lead to any injury.
By contrast, if you trusted your doctor’s judgment and continued feeling poorly for months before seeking a second opinion, only to learn that you have advanced-stage cancer, your original doctor’s negligence might have caused your injuries by resulting in an exacerbation of your condition.
You won’t have a viable malpractice claim if your doctor was negligent but didn’t cause any injuries.
When Medical Negligence Rises to the Level of Medical Malpractice
When a medical provider’s negligence directly causes a patient’s injuries, it can rise to the level of medical malpractice. Medical malpractice is a recognized legal claim through which injured victims of medical negligence can pursue compensation for their losses. Medical negligence causes a patient’s injuries when it leads to the patient’s condition worsening, results in a patient’s unnecessary and unexpected complications, or requires additional surgeries or treatment to correct. There are also other examples of what might be considered an injury in a medical malpractice case.
To amount to medical malpractice, a healthcare professional’s medical negligence must result in both the patient’s injuries and calculable damages. The damages are losses the patient suffers as a result of the provider’s negligent actions. Similar to injuries, if you can’t show that you suffered damages because of the provider’s negligence, you won’t have a viable malpractice lawsuit.
Medical malpractice lawsuits involve the following four legal elements:
- The doctor or another healthcare provider had an expected standard of care.
- The doctor or another healthcare provider delivered treatment that failed to meet the expected standard of care or failed to provide appropriate care.
- The provider’s deviation from the expected standard of care directly caused the patient’s injuries.
- The patient suffered calculable damages as a result.
If the negligence did not foreseeable cause the patient’s condition or had no negative impact on it, the patient will not have a viable malpractice claim.
Good Samaritan Exception
In emergencies, medical providers, bystanders, and witnesses might render aid to an accident victim to try to save their life. For example, a paramedic might perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to try to restart someone’s heartbeat and breathing. If the victim suffers broken ribs because of the administration of CPR, the patient can’t file a lawsuit against the paramedic or ambulance company because of Pennsylvania’s good Samaritan law.
This law is found at 42 Pa.C.S. § 8332 and protects people who intervene in emergencies against potential lawsuits. Similarly, if an unconscious accident victim is transported to the hospital, the emergency room staff will not be expected to obtain informed consent before performing emergency surgery to save their life.
Examples of Medical Providers Who Can Be Negligent
Trained medical providers who deliver care that falls below the expected standard of care or fail to reasonably provide appropriate treatment to patients might be liable for medical malpractice when the patients suffer injuries and losses as a result. The following are a few examples of healthcare professionals who might be medically negligent:
- Medical doctors (MDs)
- Doctors of osteopathy (DOs)
- Nurse practitioners
- Physician assistants (PAs)
- Registered nurses (RNs)
- Lab technicians
- Doctors of chiropractic
- Outpatient clinics
- Medical practices
If your medical provider engaged in medical negligence that caused your injuries and resulting harm, you can file a claim against them. You can also include others that were involved in the delivery of substandard care. For example, if you and your baby suffered injuries during labor and delivery because of medical negligence, the obstetrician and labor and delivery staff might all share liability.
Hospital and Facility Liability
In some cases, the medical facility or hospital where the negligent provider practices might be liable. Healthcare facilities are vicariously liable for the medical malpractice of their employees. This means that if the healthcare provider who caused your injuries and losses was employed by the facility where you received the substandard treatment, the facility or hospital might be responsible for paying compensation to you.
However, it’s important to note that many physicians are not employed by the hospitals at which they practice medicine and instead work as independent contractors with admitting privileges. Others who contributed to your injuries and who were employed by the facility could be named as defendants, and the facility would be responsible for their negligent actions. For example, a hospital might be vicariously liable for the negligent actions of nurses, medical aides, and other hospital personnel who cause patient injuries.
Vicarious liability exists because employers derive benefits from the work their employees perform. When their employees cause injuries to others while working within the scope and course of their employment, the employer will be responsible for paying damages to those who are injured. Since independent contractors are not employees, employers are not vicariously liable for their actions, however.
In certain situations, a hospital might be directly liable for the medical negligence of a medical doctor even though the physician is an independent contractor. For example, if a hospital negligently gives an incompetent doctor admitting privileges despite the doctor’s documented history of disciplinary sanctions against their license, the hospital could be directly liable if a patient is injured while under the doctor’s care within the facility.
Proving Medical Malpractice
As the plaintiff, you will have the burden of proof to present sufficient evidence to prove your case. The burden of proof extends to each of the legal elements of medical malpractice as previously listed. If you fail to meet your burden for one or more of the required elements, you won’t win your claim.
Proving a medical malpractice case will require you to present testimony from expert witnesses. Medical experts can help to establish the relevant standard of care and how the doctor’s treatment deviated from it. This can help you prove that your provider’s care was substandard and amounted to medical negligence. The medical malpractice lawyers in Philadelphia at Raynes & Lawn can help you gather evidence to prove each of the elements by a preponderance of the evidence, including causation, injuries, and damages.
Some medical malpractice cases involve clear liability, meaning that proving the doctor’s negligence will not be difficult. For example, if a surgeon amputated the wrong leg during your surgery, proving the surgeon was negligent and caused your injuries and resulting damages will be fairly straightforward. This type of situation qualifies as res ipsa loquitor, which is a legal doctrine meaning that what happened speaks for itself. However, most medical malpractice cases are not nearly so clearcut and will require significant investigation and the presentation of evidence and expert testimony.
Why Are Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Important?
Medical malpractice lawsuits are important for a couple of reasons. By filing a claim against a negligent medical provider, you might be able to hold them accountable for the harm they caused to you. Your lawsuit might also serve as a deterrent to other practitioners and encourage them to exercise more care. When a medical facility or hospital is found liable in a medical malpractice lawsuit, it could result in policy changes that could help to protect others from harm in the future. Finally, a medical malpractice claim could help you recover full compensation for the losses you have suffered because of the provider’s negligence.
Damages in a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit
The damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit refer to monetary amounts awarded to victims by juries or agreed to in settlement agreements. The majority of medical malpractice claims will only involve compensatory damages, which are amounts that are meant to compensate victims for the pecuniary and non-economic losses they have suffered. The following categories of compensatory damages might be available to you:
- Past and future medical expenses to treat the injuries caused by your provider
- Past and future wage losses
- Physical pain and suffering
- Emotional anguish
- Loss of the enjoyment of life
- Other losses
If your claim involves the death of your loved one, the following damages might be available:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Loss of the income your loved one would have earned during their expected lifespan
- Loss of household services
- Lost inheritance rights
- Pain and suffering your loved one experienced before dying
- Loss of consortium/guidance
Rarely, punitive damages might be available. These are damages that are paid on top of compensatory damages, but they are only awarded by juries in especially egregious cases. For example, if your doctor was drunk while performing surgery and caused serious injuries, punitive damages might be awarded. However, in most cases, they are not available in medical malpractice claims.
Your attorney can review your case and help you understand the various types of damages that might be available to you. They can also properly value your case to give you an idea of what it might be worth.
Consult Our Philadelphia Medical Malpractice Lawyers
If you think that your injuries might have been caused by your provider’s medical negligence, it’s important to speak with a competent medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible. The medical malpractice attorneys at Raynes & Lawn have decades of experience fighting for the rights of people who have been injured by incompetent medical providers and are prepared to aggressively advocate for you. Over the past 50 years, we have recovered billions of dollars for our clients and have amassed a significant track record of successful results. We offer free consultations and can help you understand the potential merits of your claim. Call us at 1-800-535-1797 to learn more about your legal options and your case.
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