Medical malpractice refers to treatment by a medical professional which, usually due to medical negligence, causes an undue injury to the patient. Medical malpractice laws, and lawsuits are designed to give patients injured by negligent medical care a way to recover monetary compensation to make up for their injury or damages.
Medical malpractice laws vary by state, but there are four fundamental elements in any medical malpractice case. These are 1. Duty, 2. Negligence, 3. Injury and 4. Causation.
Doctors Duty to Patients
Every medical professional has a duty to treat patients in such a way as to minimize potential for further injury. In general, the doctors duty can be broken up into four basic parts:
1. Medical Knowledge
Every medical professional should, through extensive education and training, have a level of knowledge required to competently practice in his or her area of specialty.
2. Requisite Skills
In addition to knowledge of their medical field, a doctor must possess the requisite skills to be able to apply medical knowledge to treat their patients. This skill can best be illustrated by the level of skill a surgeon would require to operate on a patient without inflicting unnecessary harm.
3. Level of Care
Every doctor, when treating a patient, must exercise a level of care that is standard in their medical profession. That is to say, every doctor is held to practice their specialty in such a way as is standard, such that any other doctor would exercise the same level of care in a given situation.
4. Judgment of a Medical Professional
A doctor must utilize his or her extensive education, experience and training in order to exercise judgment with regards to the treatment of patients. Decision regarding the treatment of a patient by a doctor should be consistent with the medically accepted standard of care.
Breach of Duty
If a doctor fails to treat a patient in such a way that meets all four of the above criteria, then the doctors has breached their duty to their patient, and may be held liable for medical negligence.
Medical negligence can be defined as the treatment by a doctor that does not meet the medically accepted standard of care. It is a breach of duty by a doctor to perform his or her job as required by their duty.
Negligence and the Standard of Care
The standard of care is best described as the guidelines by which medical treatment and study has found to treat a wide variety of illness and injury. For any given medical scenario, there is an accepted standard to which a doctor must adhere in order to best treat the patient. If the doctor deviates from that standard of treatment, then she is said to be negligent.
Much like the driver of a car failing to stop at a stop sign, if a doctor fails to adhere to the medical standard then he or she risks causing further injury.
Injury to the Patient
The third aspect of a medical malpractice case is some type of injury, or damages, suffered by the patient. In civil law, it is a requirement that some form of damages be present in order to bring a civil action against another party.
For example, in a car accident, the negligent driver (the one found at fault) will be held to pay for all the property damage, medical expenses and non-economic damages caused by their negligent driving.
Similarly, in a medical malpractice case, there must be some form of damages done to the patient in order to seek legal remedy.
In a medical malpractice lawsuit, the prosecution will demand compensation for the damages. In our system of justice, the only compensation available is money, so the lawsuit will demand some amount of money be paid to the injured patient.
The amount of money demanded by the lawsuit is directly related to the injury caused by the medical malpractice. Without some type of damages there is nothing for which to demand compensation.
Causation: The Link Between Injury and Negligence
The fourth element of a medical malpractice case is a legal concept called causation. In order for a medical malpractice case to have merit in court, it must be established that the negligence in treatment by the medical professional directly caused the injury.
This can be difficult to prove, and requires that a third party medical expert witness investigate the details of the case and show how the negligent medical care directly contributed to an undue injury to the patient.
For example, if during a surgical procedure a doctor fails to operate with the requisite care and unintentionally cuts an internal organ, he or she will be liable for any injury caused by that unintentional cut. Of course in reality, causation is rarely that simple.
Commonly, there will be some more subtle error on the part of the medical professional that will be the cause of damages to the patient. This is why it is necessary for a medical professional to act as professional witness in every medical malpractice case. It takes someone with expertise and experience in the same field of medicine as the doctor being sued to examine the case and establish a causal link between the negligent care and the damages incurred by the patient.