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What is a medical malpractice suit?

A medical malpractice suit is a legal claim made by a person injured by a healthcare provider, due to error, mistake, or negligence. 

Some suits will go to trial, meaning a jury or judge will hear all of the facts and consider whether the defendants are liable.  Other cases may settle beforehand, depending on whether any defendant chooses to offer an amount of money to end the litigation rather than continue to court.

Whether the case ultimately goes to trial or settles, upon filing the petition where the claims of negligence are made in the court, the parties will be “plaintiffs” and “defendants.”

The plaintiff is the injured person.   In cases where the patient has died due to medical error or negligence, family members may be able to sue on behalf of their loved one. 

The defendant is the negligent party, but sometimes the fault is spread among entities and so the lawsuit can include multiple people and entities that were involved.  For example, a suit involving a misdiagnosis followed by a surgical error exacerbated by an infection, defendants would include the doctor who diagnosed, the surgeon who operated, the hospital employing both, etc.    

Next begins the process of building a case.  This involves a thorough investigation to gather the necessary evidence.  Usually, medical records and other documents will be required to show the dates, times, and results of treatment, the persons involved, the consequences and diagnoses, etc.   This information is necessary because proving a medical professional’s fault and liability for a patient’s harms requires these things:

1. A doctor-patient relationship existed, creating a duty for the doctor to care for the patient.

Doctors cannot usually be found to be negligent for failing to diagnose or treat people who were not technically under their care. This means that to prove a medical negligence case, a requirement is that the healthcare provider(s) who erred were treating and supposed to treat the patient who was harmed. 

If you were a patient of the healthcare provider, proving the relationship existed likely only requires showing the medical records.  But if you never saw the doctor or had no medical relationship (for example, the doctor was your neighbor but did not formally treat you), that doctor may not have had a duty to oversee your care and thus may not be a defendant in the case. 

2. The doctor was negligent

Sometimes, people get sick.  Not all illnesses or even deaths are the fault of the doctor.  So just because you or a loved one was ill or suffered does not necessarily mean that the doctor was responsible and therefore negligent. 

Sometimes, too, patients don’t like doctors’ bedside manners.  Sometimes doctors seem rushed or brash, and their patients feel like they were not treated well.  However, this also may not mean the doctor was negligent.  Friendly mannerisms and social courtesies may have no affect on a medical professional’s skill or level of care. 

To prove a doctor is negligent, the plaintiff will have to show that the doctor failed to perform his or her job of diagnosing, treating, and/or medicating with the appropriate degree of care as is expected for that type of doctor in the medical field.  This means that the plaintiff’s attorney will have to prove other doctors would have done more or acted differently, and what the plaintiff’s doctor did was not reasonable, but rather below an expected standard of care.

3. The doctor’s negligence caused the injury.

When a patient visits a doctor, it is usually because of an existing illness or injury.  Thus, most malpractice cases involve someone already sick or hurt – meaning the doctor could not have caused that original illness or injury. 

To build a case against the doctor for negligence or malpractice, it will be necessary to show that additional harm or injury was caused by the doctor’s act or omission.  For example, it would be difficult to show that death was the doctor’s fault in a situation where a patient seeks treatment for symptoms that are later diagnosed as terminal lung cancer and subsequently dies.  To prove liability, the plaintiff would have to show that the death was caused by the doctor, not the terminal lung cancer.

Examples of medical malpractice often include situations where injuries could have been prevented if the doctor had correctly diagnosed the issue, or instances where illness occurred because a doctor misdiagnosed and mistreated the patient.

4.  The injury led to specific damages.

Mere hurt feelings or poor bedside manner cannot be considered sufficient injury to recover in a medical negligence case.  Even if the experts can show the doctor performed below the standard of care, meaning he or she committed a medical error, acted in a way that was negligent, or failed to diagnose a problem, etc., still, if there is no injury, there is no case.

The plaintiff will have to prove actual injuries and damages.  These can be financial, medical, or emotional, but must be demonstrable.

Proving these things listed above requires medical experts.  Medical experts are professionals in the same field who were not involved in the case but who give opinions about the doctor’s acts and omissions.

For a plaintiff to prove a medical negligence case, the expert will likely have to testify that the doctor failed to act with the appropriate level of care expected of him or her by the medical field, and that failure caused the injury in question. 

Building and litigating a medical malpractice suit against a healthcare provider or medical facility is complicated and requires a serious investment of time, money, and energy.  At NB&W, we have over 100 years of combined experience in successfully litigating medical negligence claims and obtaining recovery for our clients who were hurt by a doctor or hospital’s error.

Help us help you; help us ensure our healthcare field is helping, not harming, your family, our family, and our whole community.