Medical Malpractice

Improper, unskilled, or negligent treatment of a patient by a physician, dentist, nurse, pharmacist, or other health care professional.

A person who alleges negligent medical malpractice must prove four elements: (1) a duty of care was owed by the physician; (2) the physician violated the applicable standard of care; (3) the person suffered a compensable injury; and (4) the injury was caused in fact and proximately caused by the substandard conduct. The burden of proving these elements is on the plaintiff in a malpractice lawsuit.
Physicians, as professionals, owe a duty of care to those who seek their treatment. This element is rarely an issue in malpractice litigation, because once a doctor agrees to treat a patient, he or she has a professional duty to provide competent care. More important is that the plaintiff must show some actual, compensable injury that is the result of the alleged negligent care. Proof of injury can include the physical effects of the treatment performed by the physician, but it can also include emotional effects. The amount of compensation at issue is usually a highly contested part of the litigation.

Causation may also be a vigorously litigated issue because a physician may allege that the injuries were caused by physical factors unrelated to the allegedly negligent medical treatment. For example, assume that a physician is sued for the negligent prescription of a drug to a patient with coronary artery disease and that the patient died of a heart attack. The plaintiff's estate cannot recover damages for the heart attack unless there is sufficient proof to show that the medication was a contributing cause.

The critical element is standard of care, which is concerned with the type of medical care that a physician is expected to provide. Until the 1960s the standard of care was traditionally regarded as the customary or usual practice of members of the profession. This standard was referred to as the "locality rule," because it recognized the custom within a particular geographic area. This rule was criticized for its potential to protect a low standard of care as long as the local medical community embraced it. The locality rule also was seen as a disincentive for the medical community to adopt better practices.