Medical Malpractice: What You Need to Prove

How a medical malpractice plaintiff establishes a health care provider's liability for a mistake in the treatment setting.

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

If you're considering filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, one of your first questions could be "How do I prove my doctor made a mistake?" Proving your case usually means establishing that your doctor (or another health care professional) failed to provide treatment in line with applicable legal standards, 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 order to make a successful medical malpractice case.

Establishing the Provider-Patient Relationship

First, you'll need to show the existence of a doctor-patient (or provider-patient) relationship, which (in the eyes of the law) gives rise to the health care professional's duty to provide you with competent care based on the circumstances (more on this duty in the next section).

This is usually not a difficult element to establish. If a doctor treated you through explicit agreement, or in a scenario where an agreement to provide care could reasonably be inferred—or if the care was actually provided absent any specific or implied agreement—then the doctor-patient relationship existed. This element of a medical malpractice case usually goes unchallenged by the defense.

The Medical Standard of Care

Did the doctor or other professional who treated you act 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 applicable medical standard of care, the defendant healthcare provider 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 medical witnesses (doctors or other health care professionals) to testify about what a competent and reasonably skilled provider would have done in the same situation. In fact, both the plaintiff and the defendant's sides often present expert testimony regarding whether the defendant provided care in line with accepted standards of medical practice. Clinical 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 the facts of your case and methodically show how the defendant failed to provide care that measured up to that legal yardstick. This means presenting detailed testimony as to what your provider should have done and contrasting it with what was actually done, to paint a clear picture of the provider's medical negligence.

Establishing the gap between what the health care provider should have done and what was actually done is one of the biggest challenges in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Link Between Medical Negligence and Patient Injury

It's not enough to show that your provider made the kind of mistake that most health care professionals might not have made. You'll also need to show that the defendant's action (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. 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). Learn more about when it's medical malpractice (and when it isn't).

Quantifiable Proof of Harm (Damages)

Finally, you must provide details of the actual harm you suffered ("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 because of inability to work. In addition, a medical malpractice plaintiff can usually recover compensation for "pain and suffering" (both physical and mental) resulting from the impact of the sub-standard medical care.

Learn more about damages in a medical malpractice case.

Proof "By a Preponderance of the Evidence"

A patient who has been injured by medical malpractice (the "plaintiff") must establish 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 certain 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 notice-of-claim requirements, pre-lawsuit review panels, and special filings (like the "certificate of merit"), depending on the state where you're filing the lawsuit.

If you're thinking about taking legal action over harm caused by a health care provider's mistake, it may be time to discuss your situation with a lawyer and determine your best course of action. Use the contact tools on this page to reach out to a medical malpractice lawyer near you, or learn more about finding the right medical malpractice lawyer for you and your case.

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