Practicing Medicine Without a License: Criminal & Civil Liability

The unlicensed practice of medicine can land the medical provider in jail, and in the cross-hairs of a lawsuit if a patient is harmed.

By , J.D. · DePaul University College of Law

Because patients put so much trust in their doctors, laws against practicing medicine without a license are fairly unforgiving. These cases can range from practicing without a license with criminal intent (the offender has no medical training and intends to defraud or sexually assault the victim) to situations where a once-licensed physician has let their credentials lapse. In the sections that follow, this article will discuss the criminal and civil penalties for practicing medicine without a license, and explain the legal options available to people who have been treated by a person practicing medicine without a license.

Criminal Penalties for Practicing Medicine Without a License

Laws vary by state, but practicing medicine without a license is illegal in all states. Common sentences range from one to eight years in prison, depending on whether it's a misdemeanor or felony offense. Many judges will also impose fines in addition to prison sentences.

Civil Liability for Practicing Medicine Without a License

Anyone harmed by a person practicing medicine without a license may sue for damages in civil court. Again, laws vary by state, but as a general proposition, a person practicing medicine without a license will be liable for just about any foreseeable injury that results from the misconduct.

The lack of a license will raise a presumption that the care was negligent. In the context of a medical malpractice case, it can be powerful proof of medical negligence (by an individual or by a health care facility) if a once-licensed health care provider was in fact not credentialed to practice medicine at the time the patient was treated.

Finally, if a person is knowingly practicing medicine without a license, and a "patient" is injured as a result, that can be enough to justify punitive damages. A judge and jury might find that the unauthorized practice was so offensive that the offender could have to compensate the victim not just for the actual harm caused, but also to pay additional penalties for intentionally deceiving the victim. This is akin to what might happen in a civil fraud case.

Legal Options for Victims

If you think you may have undergone medical "treatment" by someone who isn't in fact licensed to practice medicine, the first thing you need to do is report the person to local law enforcement. Since practicing medicine without a license is a serious crime, you need to get the police involved. This will hopefully lead to the offender's arrest as quickly as possible, which is important because the offender may be continuing the fraud by "treating" or attempting to "treat" other victims.

Also, the patient should report the offender to the state medical complaint board. This board may be able to warn other potential patients and investigate how to prevent the problem in the future. For tips on where to go to make your report, see this page.

The patient may also file a lawsuit against the offender. If the patient was harmed in any way by the offender, the patient will be able to recover all compensable damages. The patient need not necessarily be physically harmed by the offender in order to file a lawsuit. One option is suing the person for civil battery, which is typically defined as any non-consensual or offensive touching. The legal argument here is that you consented to be treated by (and physically touched by) a licensed physician. Since the person was not licensed, your consent was obtained by fraud.

It's important to keep in mind that criminal charges (filed by the county or other local municipality) and a civil lawsuit (filed by the victim) are not mutually exclusive in cases of practicing medicine without a license. They can go side by side.

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