Legal Concepts in a Medical Malpractice Case

There are four fundamental concepts that make up a medical malpractice claim. These key elements make up the plaintiff's burden of proof for a successful lawsuit.

The basic legal requirements of a medical malpractice case are the same as those in any simple negligence or personal injury case, where one person has been harmed by another's carelessness. Whether you have been injured in a slip and fall, car accident, or by a doctor, you must prove duty, breach, causation and damages to ensure a verdict in your favor.

Medical malpractice cases, however, vary in the sense that proving each element can be slightly more difficult -- or subject to more statutory control -- than in other personal injury cases. Read on to learn more about the elements of a medical malpractice case.

1. Duty

In any negligence case -- and nearly all personal injury cases are governed by negligence -- the most basic element you must prove is that the defendant owed you a legal duty of care.
In a medical malpractice case, doctors are generally charged with a duty to abide by a certain level of care, by virtue of the doctor-patient relationship.

The standard is the amount or variety of care that a reasonably competent, prudent physician -- in good standing, and of same or similar educational background and geographic location -- would administer under same or similar circumstances. If that sounds like legalese, it is only because the legal definition of the standard of care is repeated ad nauseum in cases and statutes in every jurisdiction in the United States.

Because of the technical nature of the practice of medicine, it is often required of medical malpractice plaintiffs to provide a sworn statement by another physician attesting that, in his or her expert opinion, the standard of care was breached in your case.

2. Breach of Duty

The concept of a breach of duty in a medical malpractice case is very simple: if your doctor failed to abide by the standard of care, he breached his duty to you as a patient. Breaches of the standard of care, as stated above, more often than not require some type of sworn statement to be considered by a court or jury.

While certain cases of medical malpractice, such as cases where surgical tools were left in a patient or the wrong limb was amputated, would stand absent expert support, others are far too technical and complex to simply be "taken on faith."

As a result, jurisprudence has evolved to the point where basically every medical malpractice case must have expert support -- testimony that will bolster the injured patient's arguments regarding elements like duty, breach, causation and damages. The theory being that only a medical professional is qualified to determine whether actual malpractice occurred -- as opposed to a bad medical outcome resulting from proper treatment.

3. Causation

Causation is the third element main element when it comes to proving medical malpractice. To prove causation, you must prove that your doctor's breach of duty caused you harm. The easiest method by which to analyze causation is the "but…for" test.

Ask yourself, "but for my doctor's actions, would this injury have occurred?" If the answer is no, you will likely be able to prove causation. If the answer is "yes," your case has problems from the start.

Take, for example, a case involving a misplaced surgical incision. If a surgeon has to make an extra incision because he missed the surgical site on the first try, there is an argument to be made that the surgeon breached his duty. But if the end result is that the incision is simply one inch longer than it would have been if he had hit the target on the first try, there is a question regarding whether his alleged breach of duty actually caused you damage.

Using the amputation example from above, if a doctor amputates your left foot instead of the right, his breach of duty has very clearly caused you harm. And there is a direct causal connection between his breach of duty and your injuries. Proximate cause will be easy to establish in that situation.

4. Damages

To prove the damage element of a medical malpractice case, you must prove that as a result of all of the elements discussed above -- the doctor's breach of the standard of care -- actually resulted in some kind of harm, whether it be physical, financial, psychological, or otherwise.

Sometimes, as in the amputation example, the damages are obvious. In other cases of medical malpractice -- particularly in cases where the true damage takes months (or years) to manifest -- proving you were damaged can be difficult.

Both economic damages and non-economic damages are available in medical malpractice cases, and the vast majority of states allow for punitive damages as well. However, the trend over the last several years is for state legislatures to place caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Laws vary from state to state.

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