Medical Malpractice: What You Need to Prove

Start here to understand the different legal elements that an injured patient needs to establish.

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If you’re considering filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, one of your first questions is likely, “What will I need to prove?” A legal claim for medical malpractice usually comes down to establishing that your doctor or another health care professional was negligent in providing medical care or treatment to you, and that you suffered some kind of harm as a result. In this article, we’ll walk through the steps of what you need to prove in a successful medical malpractice case.

Existence of a Doctor-Patient Relationship

First, you’ll need to show the existence of a doctor-patient relationship, which (in the eyes of the law) gives rise to the doctor’s duty to provide you with competent care based on the circumstances. In general, this is not a difficult element to prove in a malpractice case.  If the doctor agreed to provide some type of diagnosis or treatment to you -- or if the care was actually provided absent any specific agreement -- then the doctor-patient relationship existed. This element of a medical malpractice case usually goes unchallenged.

Proof of the Doctor’s Sub-Standard (Negligent) Care

The issue here is generally whether, in providing treatment to you, the doctor acted with the skill and care that a similarly-trained health care professional would have demonstrated under the circumstances. In legalese, this is known as the medical standard of care, and it's a crucial element in any medical malpractice case.

In establishing the medical standard of care -- what your doctor should have done -- your doctor will be compared with similar professionals in similar circumstances, taking into consideration factors like the community or type of community in which the defendant practices.

In most cases, it will be necessary for expert witnesses (doctors or other health care professionals) to testify about what a competent and reasonably skilled doctor would have done in the same situation. In fact, both the plaintiff and the defendant’s sides often present expert testimony regarding whether the doctor provided competent care based on accepted standards of medical practice. Clinical practice guidelines published by medical professional groups are sometimes also used as evidence of the standard of care in a particular situation.

Next, the expert witness will apply the medical standard of care to your case and methodically show how your doctor failed to provide care that measured up to that legal yardstick. This means presenting detailed testimony as to what your doctor should have done and contrasting it with what was actually done, to paint a clear picture of the doctor's liability for medical negligence

Link Between Doctor’s Negligence and Patient’s Injury

It's not enough to show that your doctor made the kind of mistakes that most doctors wouldn't have made. You’ll also need to show that the doctor’s actions (or failure to act) caused your health condition to become worse, or resulted in you suffering some additional injury or harm. The trick here is making it clear that your injuries aren’t attributable to an underlying medical condition or some other cause, but to the sub-standard care you received from your doctor. Plaintiffs often use expert testimony to help establish this element of a medical malpractice case (in addition to using an expert to show sub-standard care, as discussed above).

Quantifiable Proof of Patient’s Harm (Damages)

Finally, you must provide details of the actual harm you suffered (this is called “damages” in legalese). In a medical malpractice case, damages might include the cost of additional medical treatment, and income that the plaintiff has lost or will lose by being unable to work. In addition, a medical malpractice plaintiff can usually recover damages for pain and suffering -- both physical and mental -- that the plaintiff has endured because of the sub-standard medical care.

Proof “By a Preponderance of the Evidence”

A patient who has been injured by medical malpractice (the “plaintiff”) must show the elements listed above “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means that they are each more likely than not to be true. This is an easier legal standard to meet than what’s necessary in other types of cases -- in criminal court the standard is proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” for example.

But medical malpractice claimants have some unique legal hurdles to get over, including getting the case past a malpractice review board and filing a certificate of merit in some cases, depending on where you’re filing the claim. Since medical malpractice laws differ from state to state, and even the most seemingly straightforward case will likely involve complex medical issues, one of the first things you may want to do is contact an experienced lawyer to discuss whether you have a viable medical malpractice claim. 

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