Medical malpractice is notoriously one of the most difficult types of cases in personal injury law. Proving medical malpractice requires knowledge of complex medical topics, strong relationships with experts in the field, and many other resources we will discuss further below.
Even with over three decades of experience practicing medical malpractice law in Philadelphia—a city with some of the largest, wealthiest, and most reputable medical institutions in the country—the attorneys at Shrager & Sachs still believe there is no such thing as an “easy” medical malpractice case.
To learn more about what it would take to prove medical malpractice in your case, schedule a free consultation with one of the city’s most highly accomplished medical malpractice lawyers.
What Do You Need To Prove in a Medical Malpractice Case?
Why is medical malpractice difficult to prove? Firstly, in order for any case of medical negligence to have grounds for legal action, there are certain criteria that must be met. These four basic conditions must be proven conclusively, which is not as easy as it may seem.
In describing the four basic principles of any medical malpractice case below, we will use the word “doctor.” But remember that the same criteria applies to any case of medical negligence involving nurses, technicians, dentists, surgeons, anesthesiologists, or any other individual or group responsible for patient care.
In a medical malpractice case, you must prove:
- A doctor-patient relationship existed, and you were owed a duty of care
- The doctor breached (neglected or violated) the duty of care owed to you
- The breach of duty caused your injuries
- You suffered damages as a result of your injuries
One of the things that makes proving these conditions so difficult is the fact that not every medical procedure has a favorable outcome, even when the doctor does everything they should have done. This ambiguity leaves much room for interpretation. Did the doctor commit an error or was the procedure simply not successful for other reasons? And are your injuries really a direct result of a doctor’s error? It’s often difficult to prove that a doctor’s conduct was actually negligent, deviating from the medical standard of care.
The term “medical standard of care” is applied to describe the level of patient care doctors must provide. It defines the way any reasonable trained medical professional should act under the same circumstances. In other words, if a different doctor treated you instead, would the outcome be the same? As you can probably guess, there is some subjectivity involved in the exact definition of the “standard of care” under a given set of conditions. That’s why it’s necessary to examine statistical data and confer with experts experienced in similar types of medical cases.
What Evidence Is Needed To Prove Medical Malpractice?
Like any type of personal injury case, lawyers often turn to evidence such as eyewitness accounts, proof of the victim’s injuries, video footage and photographs, and documents related to the incident in order to prove medical malpractice. However, these sources of evidence are not always sufficient in a case involving medical negligence.
Relying on doctor’s notes, test results, or the testimony of an eyewitness can be inconclusive and may even be misleading. Any notes a doctor makes are likely to point toward their own competence and exclude details that imply negligence. Even if you have a copy of your test results, you won’t have the medical expertise to realize if your doctor misinterpreted the results. Similarly, a nurse or other attendant who witnessed an incident might not have the medical training to recognize a slight error or omission committed in a highly complex procedure.
As such, proving a medical malpractice case requires:
Knowledge of Complex Medical Data
Your medical malpractice claim needs to be able to analyze the medical condition you were being treated for, the way it should have been treated, the way your doctor acted given the circumstances, and how their actions deviated from the standard of care. Without years of training, most people don’t have the ability to do this on their own. Even if you know your doctor acted negligently, it’s hard to argue the minute and nuanced details of medical care with enough accuracy to prove your case to an insurance company or courtroom jury.
To prove a difficult medical malpractice claim, lawyers must analyze information such as:
- Statistical data on past cases similar to yours to understand trends and expected outcomes
- Medical journal publications containing findings and advancements that any physician in your doctor’s position should be aware of
- The accepted standards and protocols in the field for handling certain medical conditions
- Records and case histories for patients previously treated by your physician or hospital
- Specific cases comparable to yours that were treated successfully by other physicians
- Your medical history, allergies, past illnesses, and complicating factors that your doctor should have been aware of when ordering your treatments, and how they affected your outcome
These are only a few examples of the kind of information used to prove a medical malpractice case. Depending on the nature of your case, you may need to explore multiple other resources in order to obtain the proof needed to support your claim of medical negligence.
Expert Witness Testimony
One of the most important pieces of evidence in proving medical malpractice is the testimony of an expert witness. An expert witness is someone hired to provide their professional opinion on an issue related to your case.
If, for example, you were injured by a surgical error, you may need to retain the services of another surgeon who practices in the same field. The expert testimony of this second surgeon can help to analyze the actions of your surgeon, showing how they deviated from the accepted standard.
The testimony of an expert witness is critical to your case. In many situations, the expert’s statement can truly make or break a claim. However, finding the right expert witness is not such a simple task.
You’ll need to identify someone who is highly specialized and knowledgeable in the area most relevant to your case. But not every surgeon with expertise in your area will be willing to serve as an expert witness. Many medical professionals are busy or have little interest in becoming involved in a legal claim. Others refuse to testify against other health care providers they consider colleagues. It’s a big commitment to act as an expert witness, and not a sacrifice many people are willing to make.
Other Factors That Make Medical Malpractice Difficult To Prove
The information provided above should be sufficient to answer the question: Is medical malpractice difficult to prove? But on top of the challenges already discussed, there are a few other factors that make medical malpractice cases even more complicated than other types of personal injury.
Factors that can further complicate medical malpractice cases include:
A Bias in Favor of Doctors
A doctor is a known medical expert. It’s assumed by many that a doctor should have a better understanding of health care theories and practice than, say, an injured patient or an attorney. Many people also have a natural inclination to trust doctors, who they see as embodying a sense of authority, compassion, and professionalism. Medical malpractice claims often face the added hurdle of overcoming a popular bias in favor of health care providers.
High Cost of Litigation
Because medical malpractice cases require so much time, expertise, and resources, they can be more expensive to litigate. These cases generally last much longer than other types of personal injury cases. Hiring qualified expert witnesses can also come at a high cost.
Medical malpractice attorneys like ours at Shrager & Sachs often take cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning that we don’t get paid until you win your case. If a lawyer is not confident they will win your difficult medical malpractice lawsuit, they may be unwilling to take on such a costly and time-consuming case. This makes partnering with the right lawyer all the more important when it comes to medical malpractice claims.
Money and Power in the Health Care Industry
Health care is a trillion-dollar industry. The national healthcare expenditure is expected to reach $6.2 trillion by 2028, while the U.S. already spends more as a nation on medical expenses than any other country in the developed world.
Regardless of whether your injury was sustained through the negligence of a doctor, nurse, radiologist, dentist, or hospital administration, your medical malpractice claim will be filed against a very powerful defendant. Health care practitioners are protected by a network of insurance and legal policies that are effective at forming a shield against liability. When you file a claim against a negligent medical professional, you are also going up against a team of highly-paid attorneys and a massive insurance company with no reason to take your side.
Can You File a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Without a Lawyer?
From a legal standpoint, it is not necessary to hire a lawyer when filing a medical malpractice claim. However, it is probably evident by now that medical malpractice lawsuits are extremely difficult to successfully litigate. It is not recommended that you attempt to hold a doctor or health care facility legally liable for medical negligence on your own.
If you were harmed by what you believe to be medical malpractice, a free consultation at Shrager & Sachs is waiting for you. Contact our office right away to learn what the next steps should be. There is no obligation to work with our law firm after our initial meeting.