The field of medical law deals with the duties and responsibilities of medical professionals and the rights of the patients. It is the duty of the health care professional to look after the patient, ensure his safety, and help him recover. Unfortunately, when substandard and lax care is provided, it often results in irreparable damage and loss to the patient. Deaths resulting from medical negligence have become a global cause of concern, and must be addressed with stricter measures.
The laws revolving around medical malpractice in the United States are governed by court-made Common Law. Since, the laws regarding medical negligence vary from one state to the other, the judgements of one state court may not be acceptable in another jurisdiction. However, in recent years state enacted statutes have attempted to give more clarity and unity to the rules and regulations pertaining to medical malpractice.
Role of Law in Medical Practice
One of the basic factors that link medicine with law is negligence, which is a part of tort. Law of tort deals with cases wherein, a wrongful act resulted in the injury of an innocent person, and must be compensated through the payment of damages. Negligence is a legal concept which refers to a careless conduct, that is not expected from a reasonable person under similar circumstances. If such negligent conduct, causes damage to another person or property or both, it becomes actionable in the court of law. Some cases of negligence may constitute a criminal offense. As per common law, the concept of medical malpractice is considered as a breach of contract by the medical professional. Nowadays, medical malpractice is mostly viewed as an action in tort (and not contract). As far as medical practice is concerned, a medical professional is expected to exercise a standard level of care while treating a patient. If he fails to do so, thereby causing injury to the patient, the latter can opt for a lawsuit against the former. It can also be termed as professional negligence on the part of the health care professional. The negligent action of the health care professional may include wrong diagnosis or failure to diagnose, improper treatment, failure to treat on time, etc. In case of nurses, failure to administer medicines on time and failure to monitor, are examples of negligence. In such situations, the patient can file a medical lawsuit against the concerned health care provider.
History of Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
It is said that a suit filed in England in 1828 was indirectly connected with medical malpractice. The suit was filed by Dr Bransby Cooper (a surgeon) against Mr. Thomas Wakley, who reported the negligence of the surgeon (which resulted in the death of a patient, after lithotomy) in the journal, 'Lancet'. However, Mr. Wakley failed to convince the jury about the alleged negligence on the part of the surgeon. The surgeon defended himself by stating that he did his best to save the patient and could only do so much with the limited technology available at that time. Though the doctor sought £2000 as damages, the jury awarded only £100 to him.
United States Court System
Cases relating to medical negligence and malpractice are initiated at State trial courts, who are authorized and have the jurisdiction to hear the cases of this nature. The trial must be held where the cause of action occurred, or where the negligence took place. It may also happen, that the plaintiff and defendants may be from different jurisdictions or states, in which case a federal court is chosen to start the proceedings of the medical negligence case. Before the trial begins, the process of discovery takes place, wherein the two parties exchange all relevant documents pertaining to their case. These documents are used as evidence by the court and are crucial for determining the outcome of the trial. When a federal court hears a medical malpractice case, the state laws from where the case has arisen is maintained by the higher court. A jury trial is often chosen as the appropriate means of disposing cases of medical negligence, so as to ensure impartiality in the final outcome of the trial.
Who can File a Medical Malpractice Suit?
The patient who has suffered harm due to the negligence of the health care professional can sue the latter. The plaintiff in such a case can be the patient, or any individual legally designated to act on the behalf of the patient. The injury suffered by the patient may include physical injury, mental trauma, additional expenses, and loss of ability to work. In case the patient is no more or in case of a wrongful death suit, the administrator or executor of the deceased person's estate can act as the plaintiff.
Who can be Sued?
The defendants in medical malpractice lawsuits are usually health care officials or at times, the entire institution. Therefore, depending on the situation and gravity of the case, clinics, hospitals, medical corporations, pharmaceutical companies, or managed care organizations may be defendants in medical malpractice lawsuits. Even nurses, dentists, hospital employees, anesthesiologists, emergency care professionals, and therapists can be sued for medical negligence. Apart from the main defendant who has caused the harm, the aggrieved can indict others who had a role to play in the negligent act. For example, a surgeon uses a defective or incorrect device for a surgery, which results in injury to the patient. The patient can sue the surgeon, the hospital authorities, and even the manufacturer of the product.
When to File the Lawsuit
In most states, there is a certain time limit known as the 'statue of limitation' within which period, the aggrieved must file the medical malpractice lawsuit. In general, a statutory period of two to three years is given for filing such claims. This time period may vary from one state to another. If the aggrieved party fails to file the suit within the specified time limit, they may not be allowed to do so at a later date. However, special cases may be permitted, which fall under the exceptions to this rule. In some states the limitation period begins from the moment the patient is treated, while in others, the limitation begins from the moment the patient realizes that the medical procedure had gone wrong.
The Four Grounds to Prove
In order to prove a case of medical negligence, the plaintiff has to establish certain elements, which are:
Firstly, the plaintiff must prove that a legal duty to provide efficient medical care was undertaken by a health care officer or institution. This argument falls within the ambit of 'standard of care' which must be maintained by all medical professionals. In short, it has to be proved that the patient had hired the health care provider for his services and the latter had agreed for the same.
Secondly, the health care professional breached his duty by failing to perform his duties in line with the relevant standards of care. The plaintiff must prove that substandard medical care was given which resulted in injury.
In order to prove the case, the plaintiff may sometimes require expert testimony. For example, the defendant being a health care professional, can easily prove that the injury (or death) was not caused by his act. In which case, the plaintiff being a layman, must appeal to the court for assistance. The court then calls upon a specialist in the particular field of medicine to act as the expert witness for the case. Such an expert will analyze the case, the medical care that was administered, the medicines that were prescribed, and the procedure of the surgery. A report is submitted with the opinion of the expert witness, which explains whether negligence took place or not.
Thirdly, the plaintiff must prove the existence of 'proximate causation', or that a relationship exists between the breach of medical duty and the injury that has occurred as a result of this breach.
Fourthly, the plaintiff must prove that he has suffered harm due to the negligence of the health care provider.
Types of Damages
Punitive damage is a compensation which is much higher than the expected sum, and is meant to punish the defendant and deter him from such negligent actions in future. However, punitive damages are against the principal of justice and are not allowed. The concept of 'legislative caps' was introduced to reduce the instances of punitive damages, and restrict the amount of non-economic damages that are awarded. These caps are not imposed in cases involving permanent disability, disfigurement, and death. Cases involving voluntarily causing harm to the plaintiff, are also exempted from caps and are considered under criminal intent.
Compensatory damage denotes the appropriate award for the injury suffered. It can be economic or non-economic in nature. Non-economic damages are assessed on the basis of psychological or physical harm, emotional distress or pain, caused to the plaintiff. Economical damages include financial losses, life care expenses and medical expenses (both past and future) incurred by the aggrieved party. Though rare, medical malpractice can be considered as criminal medical negligence, in some cases. The 'Michael Jackson medical malpractice case' is an example, wherein the doctor was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years imprisonment.
Celebrity Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
The Michael Jackson Case - In this famous medical malpractice/wrongful death case, Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of prescribing Propofol to the singer in lieu of a hefty fee. Propofol is an anesthetic which is used during surgery in order to induce sleep. This act of the doctor, was highly unethical and was criticized by the judge as a serious breach of trust.
Donda West - In 2007, rapper Kanye West's mother Donda West died of complications during an abdominoplasty procedure. The doctor in this case, Dr. Jan Adams was already under investigation and scrutiny by the medical board before this unfortunate incident took place.
Julie Andrews - Known for her beautiful voice and acting skills, Julie Andrews began to experience problems while singing and underwent surgery to rectify the problem. Unfortunately, the surgeon did such a shabby job that it damaged her singing voice further.
John Ritter - The comedian suddenly collapsed on day, and was rushed to the hospital. The doctors misdiagnosed his condition as a heart attack, which in actual was an aortic dissection or tear in the biggest blood vessel. A complete body scan two years earlier should have revealed this congenital heart abnormality, but was somehow neglected by the doctor.
The aggrieved party is also free to settle the case through mediation and arbitration. However, the option of out-of-court settlement must be included in the contract and both parties must agree to this clause in order for it to be valid.