Examples of Medical Malpractice

What does it look like when a health care professional's action (or inaction) rises to the level of medical negligence?

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

When a health care provider's action (or inaction) seems unreasonable or unprofessional, and a patient suffers harm as a result, it's natural to wonder whether the situation could give rise to a lawsuit. As a phrase, "medical malpractice" is commonly-used, but as a legal concept it might not be so commonly understood.

In this article, we'll touch on the basics of medical malpractice and provide some examples to illustrate what an actionable, sub-standard medical error looks like in the real world.

Medical Malpractice Basics

Generally speaking, in order to hold a health care provider liable for medical negligence, the injured patient must be able to demonstrate:

  • the existence of a provider-patient relationship
  • the appropriate medical standard of care under the circumstances (this is a complex legal yardstick against which the health care provider's conduct will be measured)
  • exactly how the health care provider's conduct fell short of the applicable medical standard of care, and
  • how the provider's mistake harmed the patient.

    Get more details on proving your medical malpractice case.

    It's critical to remember that just because something goes wrong during a course of treatment, or the treatment doesn't achieve the desired results, that doesn't mean the provider did anything wrong from a legal standpoint. (Learn more about when it's medical malpractice, and when it isn't.)

    With that caveat in mind, let's look at a few treatment scenarios in which a health care professional might (and might not) be on the legal hook for a patient's harm.

    Anesthesia Error

    An anaesthesiologist administers the incorrect dosage to a patient who is undergoing surgery, and the patient suffers significant liver damage. The failure to ensure delivery of the proper amount of a medication is a classic case of medical negligence, and it would be difficult for the anaesthesiologist (or the hospital, if the anaesthesiologist is an employee) to argue that this conduct met the applicable standard of care.

    Many medical malpractice cases are difficult to prove because there's often a significant "gray area" between a proper course of treatment and one that's clearly inappropriate, but this example is close to black and white.

    Mistake During Childbirth

    A patient suffers umbilical cord prolapse during childbrth, which poses a serious threat to the life of the baby if a C-section is not performed immediately. The doctor fails to recognize the seriousness of the situation, and the C-section is delayed. As a result of the delay, the newborn suffers brain damage.

    Here, if it's shown that the doctor's conduct fell short of the medical standard of care, and that the baby likely would not have been harmed if the procedure had been performed earlier, a medical malpractice case might succeed.

    Undiagnosed Heart Disease

    A patient suffering chest pain is evaluated in the emergency room, where a doctor fails to correctly diagnose coronary artery disease (CAD). As a result, the patient is sent home, where he suffers a massive heart attack and dies. Here, proving that the doctor acted negligently could be difficult.

    This kind of scenario (based on the failure to diagnose) is a good example of a "gray area" case in which the doctor's side of the lawsuit is sure to produce a medical expert or two who will testify that the doctor acted reasonably under the circumstances, while the plaintiff's own experts will testify that the doctor fell short of the medical standard of care by failing to properly diagnose the condition.

    Misdiagnosis of DVT

    A patient suffering deep vein thrombosis (DVT) goes to see his doctor about pain and swelling in his leg. The doctor fails to diagnose DVT. One week later, the blood clot is dislodged, leading to a pulmonary embolism and death of the patient.

    This is another scenario that could come down to a so-called "battle of experts," although it may be a clearer case of medical negligence since symptoms of DVT are easier to spot in an initial exam, compared with those of coronary artery disease (especially if the patient in the previous example didn't report a history of CAD).

    Taking Legal Action

    When early analysis indicates that a patient's harm might be linked to a health care professional's negligence, it's important to discuss the situation with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. These kinds of cases involve complex medical and legal issues, and in many states the person filing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) needs to jump through a number of procedural hoops right at the outset. Learn more about filing a medical malpractice lawsuit and finding the right medical malpractice lawyer for you and your case.

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