Medical Malpractice - An Overview

Medical malpractice occurs when a negligent act (or omission) by a doctor or other medical professional results in harm to a patient. Negligence by a medical professional could include an error in diagnosis, treatment or illness management, and could happen during a medical procedure, test, evaluation or surgery. If such negligence results in injury to the patient, a case could arise against a doctor if his or her actions deviated from generally accepted standards of practice; against a hospital for providing improper care protocols, including problems with medications, sanitation or nursing staff levels; or against local, state or federal agencies and entities that operate hospital facilities.

Medical malpractice laws are designed to protect patients’ rights to compensation if they are injured as the result of negligence. However, malpractice suits can be complex and costly to take to trial. While, theoretically, you could seek compensation for any injury caused by the negligence of a health care provider, regardless of its seriousness, the time and money involved make it unrealistic to sue for an injury that is minor or heals quickly. If you believe you have a legitimate medical malpractice claim, it is important to consult with an attorney at The Melvin Law Firm in Greenville, NC, who can help you determine whether your claim is worth pursuing.

Theories of liability in malpractice cases


Most medical malpractice cases proceed under the theory that a medical professional was negligent in treating the patient. To establish medical negligence, an injured patient, known in legal parlance as “the plaintiff,” must prove:

  • The existence of a duty owed by the health care professional to the plaintiff (for example, a doctor/patient relationship)
  • The applicable standard of care
  • The health care professional’s deviation from that standard (this is deemed a “breach” of the duty owed to the patient)
  • A causal connection between the health care professional’s deviation from the standard of care and the patient’s injury
  • Injury or harm to the patient

One of the most important aspects of a medical malpractice action is establishing the standard of care that should be applied to the health care professional. To find a medical professional legally at fault, it must be shown that his or her conduct fell below a generally accepted standard of medical care. To establish this, the plaintiff must present expert testimony about the appropriate standard of care that should have been used when treating the plaintiff, and that the defendant failed to meet the standard. In cases where the defendant’s actions or omissions so clearly violated medical care norms that even an average person could understand the issue, expert testimony may not be required.

One of the most important elements of medical malpractice actions, causation, can be among the most difficult to establish. Specifically, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s deviation from the applicable standard of care was the prevailing cause of the injuries. This is challenging because oftentimes there are other factors that contributed to the plaintiff’s eventual injury.

Informed consent

In many situations, the failure to obtain a patient’s “informed consent” relative to a procedure or treatment is a form of medical negligence, and could even give rise to a cause of action for battery. Although the specific definition of informed consent varies from state to state, it essentially means that a physician (or other medical provider) must tell a patient about all of the potential benefits, risks and alternatives involved in any surgery, test, medical procedure or course of treatment, and must obtain the patient’s agreement before proceeding.

Breach of contract or warranty

Although it is rare for a doctor or hospital to promise specific results from a procedure, surgery or treatment, if such a guarantee is given but not achieved, the failure to produce the promised outcome may give rise to an action for breach of contract or breach of warranty. For example, a plastic surgeon may promise a patient that a rhinoplasty procedure will result in the patient having a nose identical to Britney Spears’, or that a lip augmentation will yield lips like Angelina Jolie’s. If that result is not delivered, the patient may attempt to recover under breach of warranty or breach of contract. These cases are possible because this type of promised result can be judged more objectively than other types of medical outcomes, since it can be seen simply by looking at the patient.

Potential defendants in medical malpractice cases

Medical malpractice can be committed by all manner of health care professionals, including doctors, surgeons, nurses, technicians, sonographers, administrators and other hospital workers. In a case where a hospital employee commits malpractice, the hospital itself may be held liable under the legal doctrine of “respondeat superior.” Under this theory, an employer may be held liable for the negligent acts of its employee if the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment when the negligent act or omission occurred. This doctrine is important to plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases because it helps ensure there will be a financially responsible party to compensate the injured plaintiff.

Contact a medical malpractice lawyer

In general, there are no guarantees of medical results. An unanticipated or unsuccessful result from medical treatment or surgery does not, in itself, mean that medical malpractice has been committed. That being said, medical malpractice does happen, and when it does, those responsible should be held accountable for their negligent or reckless actions. If you believe you may have been the victim of medical malpractice, you should meet with an experienced attorney at The Melvin Law Firm in Greenville, NC, as soon as possible to discuss the facts of your case and receive a professional evaluation of your situation.

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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