Elements to Prove in Medical Negligence Cases

If you've been injured by sub-standard medical care, you should know that what you'll need to prove in a medical negligence case is largely the same as what an plaintiff must establish in any personal injury case. The main elements are duty, breach, causation and damages. The main distinction when it comes to medical negligence is that proving each element can be slightly more difficult -- or subject to more statutory control -- when compared to other personal injury cases.

Let's take a closer look at each of these elements.

Establishing a Legal Duty

In a medical negligence case, the most basic element you must prove is that the defendant owed you a legal duty of care under the circumstances. The existence of this duty is pretty easy to establish -- it arises as a byproduct of the doctor-patient relationship.

The duty is usually defined as the kind and degree of care that an ordinary, prudent physician -- in good standing, and of same or similar educational background and geographic location -- would provide to a patient under the same or similar circumstances.

Breach of the Duty of Care in a Medical Negligence Case

The concept of a breach of duty in a medical negligence case is very simple: if your doctor failed to abide by the standard of care, she breached her duty to you as a patient. While certain cases of medical negligence -- such as cases where surgical tools are left in a patient -- are pretty clear without heaps of technical proof, others are complex.

Because of the technical nature of the practice of medicine, state laws often require medical negligence plaintiffs to provide a sworn statement from a medical expert witness who testifies that the medical standard of care was breached. In some states, the plaintiff is required to provide this kind of testimony (or some variation of it) when filing the initial complaint in civil court.

Causation as an Element of Medical Negligence

Causation is the third element of medical negligence. The easiest method by which to analyze causation is the “but…for” test. That means asking yourself “but for my doctor’s actions, would this injury have occurred?” If the answer is no, you will likely be able to prove causation. If the answer is “yes,” your case is going to run into problems from the start.

Let's take a pretty extreme case where a doctor amputates your left foot instead of the right. This breach of duty has very clearly caused you harm. And there is a direct causal connection between the breach of duty and your injuries. Proximate cause will be easy to establish. But again, it's not so clear in many medical negligence cases, and most of these lawsuits are won or lost based on the strength of expert medical witness opinion.

Damages as an Element of Medical Negligence

Finally, you must prove that the doctor’s breach of the standard of care actually caused you some kind of harm -- physical, financial, psychological or otherwise. Sometimes, as in the amputation example, the damages are obvious. In other cases of medical negligence -- particularly in cases where the true damage takes months (or years) to manifest -- proving you were damaged can be difficult.

Both economic damages and non-economic damages are available in medical negligence cases, and the vast majority of states allow for punitive damages as well. However, the trend over the last several years is for state legislatures to place caps on non-economic damages. (Learn more about damage caps in medical malpractice cases.)

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