When you seek medical care, you generally assume that you can trust your doctors to treat you properly. Unfortunately, doctors make mistakes just like people in any other profession can. The issue, of course, is that a mistake made by a doctor can be life-altering for a patient and his or her family.
If you believe you've been the victim of medical malpractice, you might be wondering whether or not you truly have a case—and if so, how much your case might be worth. By having a better understanding of what medical malpractice entails and what the case requirements are, you can take the steps needed to seek justice.
Medical Malpractice Defined
In simplest terms, medical malpractice occurs when a doctor or other medical professional’s conduct “fell below the reasonable standard of care” by a professional in their position while carrying out their duties. If so, did their “negligence” cause significant damages.
Often, the end result of medical malpractice is further serious health complications, serious permanent or long term injuries and/or disabilities, or even death of the patient. However, there are also instances where medical malpractice may cause more emotional harm than physical harm—such as a case where a doctor tells a patient that he or she has cancer when they actually don't.
Understanding Types of Medical Malpractice
There are a few different types of medical malpractice that are commonly seen in courtrooms.
One of the most common is that of a failure to diagnose a patient's medical condition or diagnosing it improperly. Unfortunately, if a patient is misdiagnosed, the resulting treatment rendered may be the cause of the patient’s “damages.” In failure to diagnose cases, the lack of the proper treatment may be the cause of the patient’s “damages.”
Another common type of medical malpractice is that of mistakes made during treatment. Typically, this is seen in the form of a surgical error when a surgeon makes a wrong cut or makes another mistake during the procedure. The results of this type of medical malpractice can be life-threatening.
Unfortunately, prescription errors are also relatively common in medical malpractice cases. When a doctor prescribes the wrong medication to a patient or when another medical professional incorrectly fills or labels a prescription bottle, serious problems can arise.
While this is not an exhaustive list of medical malpractice case types, these are a few of the most commonly seen and tried in court. If you don't see anything that fits with your experience on this list, that doesn't mean you don't have a case; your best bet will be to speak with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer to discuss the details of your experience.
Burden of Proof in a Medical Malpractice Case
Specific laws related to medical malpractice vary by state. In Arizona, patients alleging medical malpractice against a medical professional must be able to prove three things in order to have a compelling case.
The first thing that needs to be proven is that there was a “standard of care” within the medical community that should have applied to your treatment.
Next, you must prove that the standard of care was not followed by your doctor or other medical professional.
Finally, you must "connect the dots" and prove that this breach of care was the cause of any injuries you may have sustained as a result of the incident.
In Arizona, this burden of proof is often reached through testimony from an expert witness. This is another expert in the field who can speak as to what "should" have happened versus what actually happened in your course of treatment. If you're seeking a medical malpractice claim against a surgeon for an injury you sustained during a surgical procedure, then your expert witness should also be a surgeon with experience in the exact type of procedure you were having done.
Because the medical community in Arizona is relatively small, it is often difficult to find a local “medical expert” willing to testify that their colleague fell below the standard of care, and/or that your injuries were the direct result. As a result, many “medical experts” in med mal cases come from other states, which can prove very costly (paying for the expert’s time and expertise, as well as their travel, and possibly accommodations).
Negligence vs. Rare but Foreseeable Outcomes
Just because the outcome of a surgery or treatment medication yields a less than desirable result does not necessarily mean that the medical provider fell below the standard of care or was negligence. Many surgeries do not come with guaranteed outcomes and can even leave a patient worse than before the surgery. Many medications have rare, but foreseeable, adverse consequences.
Just because another medical provider would have done something differently does not mean that the initial provider’s treatment/recommended treatment was wrong. This is why many medical providers (especially surgeons, oncologists, etc.) recommend getting second opinions, because opinions about how to treat a condition can reasonable differ between professionals, just as interpretation of diagnostic testing and/or diagnosis of one’s “malady” can reasonably differ among professionals as well. Two surgeons can look at the same diagnostic film and one may reasonably conclude that surgical intervention might be the best option while another may not see a surgical candidate and instead recommend more conservative treatment options.
A Note About Informed Consent
One of the biggest challenges for many people looking to file a medical malpractice claim is something known as "informed consent," which usually lists most (but not necessarily all) possible side effects/consequences from a given treatment recommendation. Some of those side effects listed may be extremely rare, but not unforeseeable. When you sign such a “consent form,” you are agreeing to the recommended procedure/treatment and acknowledging the potential risks/side effects. It is not uncommon for this form to be used against patients when they seek to file a medical malpractice lawsuit because the doctor will claim that the patient knew the risks of the treatment and decided to proceed anyway.
It is important to understand, however, that signing an informed consent form does not waive your right to file a medical malpractice lawsuit if your doctor or medical professional acted negligently.
Because med mal cases are so costly to pursue, most med mal attorneys require that your “damages” be very significant. This usually means permanent or extremely long term, and/or life altering. Six months, or even a year, of horrific side effects, after which you achieve a near full recovery, may not be enough “damages” to convince an attorney to take your case since, after all, if you lose the case, your attorney likely does not recover their “costs,” which could easily be low to mid six figures.
Your Next Steps
If you're still wondering whether or not you have a case, the best step you can take next is to schedule a consultation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Consultations with reputable lawyers are free and can be a great way to gain more insight into whether or not you may have a case.
If you do have a case, your attorney may also be able to help you get a better idea as to the potential value of your case. Typically, in a medical malpractice lawsuit, patients (and/or their families) are entitled to any economic loss related to the incident. This can include not only the cost of any subsequent medical care needed after the mistake was made, but any lost wages you may have incurred if you were unable to work as a result of the malpractice. Arizona is also one of the only states in the country that does not set limits on medical malpractice damages, so the law is on your side here.
It's also important to note that there is a two-year statute of limitations on medical malpractice suits. This means that you have two years from the date of the incident to file your lawsuit. If medical malpractice resulted in a wrongful death, the claim must be filed within two years of that death.
Mistakes happen in every profession, but negligence resulting in a serious injury or even wrongful death can justify a medical malpractice lawsuit. Schedule your free consultation with our personal injury law firm in Phoenix today to find out how much your case could be worth.