Medical malpractice is defined as negligent, substandard care or incompetence on the part of a medical professional—including doctors, nurses, medical staff, nursing home staff or pharmacists—which causes injury or death to a patient.

Doctors or other healthcare professionals may be held legally liable if they fail to exercise the same degree of skill or care as that of another doctor or specialist under similar circumstances.

Common Types of Medical Malpractice

Medical errors are a common cause of injury and death in the United States. Unfortunately, according to reports, there are hundreds of thousands of errors each year caused by a variety of factors including mistakes, doctor fatigue, overwhelmed staff, and a lack of medical training and best practices. Even more troubling is that many of these mistakes are preventable. Common types of medical malpractice claims include:

  • Misdiagnosis by a doctor
  • Surgical errors
  • Anesthesia errors
  • Birthing errors
  • Lab test mistakes
  • Medication mistakes
  • Missed test results

What is not medical malpractice?

As mentioned above, hundreds of thousands of patients are injured each year, many of them due to doctor’s mistakes. However, not all injuries suffered by patients are a result of medical negligence. Patients, by their very nature, are generally ill; consequently, in many cases, it may not be clear whether an illness or injury resulted from the doctor’s actions.

In other cases, there may have been negligence on the part of the doctor, but the patient’s actions might have eliminated the right of the patient to hold the doctor liable. For example, the patient may have accepted the risks, they may have contributed to their own injuries, they may have failed to mitigate damages, or they may have had informed consent but decided to proceed with the medical care despite the risks.

The bottom line: To prove negligence, a claimant’s medical malpractice case must prove duty, breach of duty, proximate cause of injury, and damages or loss. Each of these requirements will be discussed in more detail below.

Proving Your Medical Malpractice Case

To win a medical malpractice claim, all states require injured claimants to prove certain elements of their medical malpractice case:

1. Duty of Care

The first element of any medical malpractice case is proving that the doctor or medical professional owed the claimant a duty of care.

For example, duty of care exists if you have established a relationship with a doctor, and they are your medical care provider. Duty may not exist, however, if you are attacked on a subway and a doctor on site fails to render aid to you. In this case, this doctor is not your treating doctor and therefore a legal duty of care does not exist (although some would argue a moral duty exists).

2. Breach of Duty

If a claimant successfully established that there was a duty of care, they must then prove that the doctor or medical professional breached their duty. This concept can be a bit complicated, but generally, it means that the doctor did not provide a reasonable standard of care similar to what another doctor would have performed in the same situation or locale, in the same specialty, with the same equipment.

The idea of breach of duty can, however, be a bit nebulous. For example, consider the example above with the doctor on the subway train. Assuming that this doctor voluntarily agreed to treat the injured patient, thereby establishing duty, the level of care that they might be able to provide could be much less than another doctor with similar skills in an emergency room.

In this case, before determining breach of duty, the court would review whether the doctor’s skill level was similar to other doctors with similar certifications, and whether the doctor used the customary practices of other doctors in their area. The court might also recognize, however, that the medical facilities and equipment available at the time of aid were substandard. With this in mind, the established duty of care might be lower for this doctor.

3. Proximate Cause of Injury

Next, the claimant must prove that there was a direct relationship between their injuries and the negligence. Proving proximate cause can be especially difficult in medical malpractice claims, where doctors often argue that the injury could have happened regardless of their actions.

4. Damages or Loss

Finally, the claimant must prove that the doctor’s negligence has caused them injury or loss. Claimants who have not suffered loss—either financially, mentally or physically—do not have an injury claim, regardless of how negligent a doctor’s actions might have been.

Filing a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you believe that you have a valid medical malpractice claim, you need to consult with a personal injury lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice claims.

Every state has established a statute of limitations for filing medical malpractice claims. State laws vary, but generally, the time limits are between one and four years. In some states, however, the time may be extended or "tolled" if the injury has not been discovered (referred to as the discovery rule).