Can a Physical Therapist Be Sued for Malpractice?

A physical therapist may or may not have an M.D., but they are typically held to a high medical standard of care, and can be sued for medical malpractice.

By , Attorney · University of Michigan Law School

If you think you've been injured by a physical therapist's negligence, you're probably wondering if you can (or should) sue, and what kind of legal rules might come into play if you do. Because a licensed physical therapist is typically considered a medical professional, special medical malpractice rules apply to lawsuits for physical therapy negligence. This article discusses medical malpractice cases against physical therapists and the few situations in which medical malpractice rules might not apply.

Physical Therapist Negligence Usually Triggers Medical Malpractice Rules

All states have special rules that apply to medical malpractice cases. Usually, what qualifies as a medical malpractice case depends on what the person who committed the negligence was doing at the time of the injury. If they were a "health care provider" providing "health care" at the time of the injury, then the medical malpractice rules will apply. A licensed physical therapist will almost always qualify as a "health care provider" under the various state definitions.

Medical Malpractice Cases are More Challenging Than Ordinary Negligence Cases

For the person suing (the "plaintiff") the fact that a case against a physical therapist qualifies as medical malpractice is not necessarily good news. The special medical malpractice rules are specifically designed to make suing a health care provider more difficult, as compared with "ordinary" personal injury cases against "ordinary" defendants. The unique procedures and limitations could include (depending on your state's law) pre-suit requirements like screening panels or the filing of an affidavit from a medical expert witness, or "caps" on the amount of compensation (damages) available to a medical malpractice plaintiff.

Essential Factors in a Medical Malpractice Case Against a Physical Therapist

First, you will need to prove that your PT did not provide the appropriate amount of care and diligence that a similarly-trained and experienced local PT would have provided in the same circumstances. You will be required to find an expert in physical therapy (usually a practicing physical therapist) to testify what the proper medical standard of care was and, in some states, whether your PT lived up to that standard.

Second, you will need to prove that not only did your PT not live up to the standard of care expected of a similarly-skilled PT in the same circumstances, but that you were injured precisely because of your PT's "sub-standard" decisions and actions.

Finally, much of the wrangling in the case will be over just what kind of damages resulted from your PT's negligence, i.e. how badly you were actually hurt and how much did that injury actually cost you in medical expenses, lost wages, etc.

Determine if Your Physical Therapist Was Only Following Doctor's Orders

Although physical therapists are licensed to practice their specialty as health care professionals, they also frequently work in cooperation with a treating physician or other primary health care provider. While your PT should be able to determine the proper course of treatment, he or she will also need to rely on medical assessments made by more qualified professionals.

If there was an error in an initial assessment and/or the recommended physical therapy, the health care professional who made the bad assessment should be sued in the same lawsuit. Depending on the facts of the case, it might be that your PT had no way of knowing that a bad assessment was made and that the wrong physical therapy was prescribed.

When a Lawsuit Against a Physical Therapist is Not a Medical Malpractice Case

As mentioned earlier, medical malpractice rules apply when the case is based on an injury caused by a health care provider who was in the course of providing health care. If your PT somehow injured you while doing something other than providing health care, the medical malpractice rules will not apply to your case. As an easy example, if you were injured because of a dangerous condition at a facility entrance, you would sue your PT for premises liability, not medical malpractice. Also, if you are alleging that your PT sexually abused you, you would not be required to follow the special medical malpractice rules and procedures.

In some cases, it might be very difficult to predict ahead of time whether a judge will decide whether the medical malpractice rules or ordinary negligence rules apply to a claim against a PT. For example, if your PT accidentally dropped a weight on your foot, some judges might say that was "simple" negligence, while others would say that proper handling of weights around patients is part of a PT's professional duty and therefore medical malpractice rules apply. If you don't follow the medical malpractice rules and a judge decides that you should have, your case will be thrown out and you will need to comply with your state's medical malpractice rules before the deadline for filing a lawsuit expires.

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