Glossary of Common Medical Malpractice Legal Terms

Medical malpractice cases sometimes seem to have a language of their own. Learn it here.

Affidavit of merit

A document signed by a doctor stating that a patient’s medical malpractice lawsuit is not frivolous (has merit, in other words). Laws of some states require this document to accompany the filing of a initial complaint in a medical malpractice lawsuit.



A health care provider’s response to a patient’s complaint, specifically admitting or denying each allegation made in the medical malpractice lawsuit.



A process in which a medical malpractice case might be resolved without a court-based trial. (More: arbitration of medical malpractice cases.)


Attorney-client privilege

The legal obligation of a patient’s attorney to keep conversations about the patient’s case private.



A health care provider’s failure to satisfy the duty to provide reasonably competent care.



A relationship between harm to a patient and a health care provider’s negligence, such that the harm would not have occurred but for the provider’s negligence.


Cause of action

See “Claim.”


Certificate of merit

See “Affidavit of merit.”



A series of allegations by a patient against a health care provider that, if proven, amount to medical malpractice.


Compensatory damages

Money paid by a health care provider to a patient victimized by medical malpractice; compensation that is designed to place the patient is a position similar to the position he or she would have been in had the malpractice not occurred.



The document filed in court that initiates a medical malpractice lawsuit. This document identifies the health care providers being sued, describes the factual allegations, and indicates the remedy sought.


Contingency Fee

A legal fee that is paid to the patient’s attorney out of the winnings from a settlement or verdict, based on a previously agreed percentage of the award (commonly 1/3).



Harm to the patient resulting from a medical mistake, expressed in monetary terms.



The person or entity being sued in a medical malpractice lawsuit (generally a doctor, nurse or hospital).



A procedure that takes place during discovery wherein a witness, a court reporter, and at least two attorneys meet, and the witness provides sworn answers to the attorneys’ questions.



The phase of a lawsuit during which both parties seek to find out as much information as possible about if and how the alleged medical malpractice occurred, and the extent of the harm caused.


Duty (of care)

A health care provider’s obligation to provide a quality of care that other health care providers would provide under similar circumstances.


Health care provider

The person or entity allegedly responsible for the harm to a patient in a medical malpractice case, including a doctor, nurse, hospital, clinic, pharmacist, or any other person or entity through which a patient might access health care


Informed Consent

The requirement that a doctor or other health care provider inform the patient about treatment options, risks associated with a certain procedure, and other important medical information related to their care. Informed consent lets a patient be an educated participant in the course of their treatment.



A series of written questions (or requests for information) that the parties send to each other seeking more information about the case, such as, “State the names and titles of each doctor, nurse, or other hospital employee who provided treatment to the patient.”



A health care provider’s assertion of an interest in the proceeds of a lawsuit, to the extent of the cost of treatment or services provided.



The processes of using the court system to solve a conflict between a doctor and a patient.


Loss of consortium

A type of damages designed to compensate a patient’s close family member (usually a spouse) for the family member’s reduced quality of life as a result of injuries to the patient.


Loss of enjoyment of life

A type of compensatory damages designed to compensate a patient for the loss of the ability to experience life’s pleasures as a result of malpractice.



Negligent provision of health care.



The breach of a duty of care owed to a patient by a health care provider, causing harm to the patient.


Pain and suffering

A type of compensatory damages designed to compensate a patient for physical discomfort experienced as a result of malpractice.



A plaintiff or defendant in a lawsuit (usually a former patient, doctor, nurse or hospital).



The individual suing a doctor, nurse or hospital in a medical malpractice lawsuit (almost always a former patient or a person suing on behalf of a former patient).



The initial documents filed in a lawsuit, including the patient’s complaint and the health care provider’s answer.


Pro-se litigant

A patient who pursues a medical malpractice lawsuit without the help of an attorney.


Proximate causation

A relationship between harm to a patient and a health care provider’s negligence such that the negligence was a sufficiently significant factor in bringing about the harm suffered.


Punitive damages

Money paid by a health care provider to a patient victimized by medical malpractice, designed to punish the health care provider for conduct that is considered particularly egregious.



When a defendant doctor (usually through an insurance carrier) agrees to pay the plaintiff patient an amount of money in exchange for the plaintiff’s agreement to release the doctor from liability in a malpractice case.


Standard of care

The quality of care that a health care provider should have provided, measured by the level of care that a reasonably skilled health care professional would have provided in similar circumstances.


Statute of limitations

Period of time during which a patient must go to court to file a medical malpractice lawsuit, or lose the right to file.


Survivor action

A lawsuit filed by the estate of a deceased patient for damages suffered by the patient before the death.



A judge or jury’s decision regarding whether malpractice occurred, and if so, how much the health care provider owes the patient in damages


Wrongful death action

A lawsuit filed by the close family members of a deceased patient for harm that they (the family members) suffered as a result of the patient's death.



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