The key to a strong medical malpractice case is thoroughness. A patient must be able to prove a series of elements to win their claim. Lose track of any one element -- or come up short in establishing it to a satisfactory extent -- and the entire case is lost. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a medical malpractice case is only as strong as its weakest element.
The three basic elements that a patient must prove in order to win a medical malpractice case are:
- doctor-patient relationship
- negligence (failing to provide competent treatment), and
- harm caused by that negligence.
In the sections that follow, we'll discuss what constitutes strong proof with respect to each element.
Proving a Doctor-Patient Relationship
This requirement is relatively easy to prove. When a doctor examines a patient or provides treatment, a doctor-patient relationship is generally established. No written contract is necessary. No payment or promise of payment is necessary.
Usually, a doctor will admit that a doctor-patient relationship existed. However, it is important not to take this element for granted. A patient cannot just assume that this element is satisfied. The patient must prove that a doctor-patient relationship existed in court even if it seems obvious. Sometimes documentation is all that's necessary (medical records, bills, referrals, etc.).
A doctor must provide reasonably competent care at all times. A doctor acts negligently by failing to provide the quality of care that other reasonably competent doctors would have provided under similar circumstances. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, the patient has the burden of proving what quality of care other reasonably competent doctors would have provided in similar circumstances.
The strongest medical malpractice cases involve obvious negligence. For example, if a doctor leaves a sponge inside of a patient during surgery, the doctor clearly failed to act as a reasonably competent doctor would have under similar circumstances. But mistakes in treatment are usually more nuanced than that, and often the proof of medical negligence will need to be provided by a medical expert witness.
Although negligence may not be obvious to the average person, a patient may still have a very strong case if a leading expert in the field establishes what the proper standard of care would be under the circumstances of the instant case, and then provides a clear and methodical picture of how the conduct of the defendant (i.e. the doctor) fell short of meeting that standard.
Proving Harm Caused by Negligence
No matter how negligent a doctor may have been, a patient’s medical malpractice case is weak unless some kind of harm resulted from the medical negligence. This harm can take many forms, including:
- pain and suffering
- cost of medical bills
- loss of earning capacity, and
- loss of the ability to enjoy life’s pleasures in the same way as prior to the injury.
As the extent of the harm increases, the value of the case also increases.
It is important to remember that only harm that was actually caused by the negligence counts. If a doctor negligently performs a knee surgery, a patient will likely be able to sue the doctor for any resulting harm linked to the botched procedure. However, if the patient dies a week later from an accident or health condition unrelated to the surgery, the patient’s family will not be able to sue the doctor for the surgical error, because the death cannot be linked to the doctor’s negligence, and the patient likely suffered little or no ill effects from any malpractice.