Medical negligence causes injury or death for thousands of individuals per year. While the harm done isn't always directly attributable to physicians, there are numerous cases where the direct actions of doctors do cause injury or death.
Combating physician malpractice in the legal system is an important option of redress for patients or surviving relatives who have been wronged. However, before malpractice can be established from a legal perspective, there are three specific elements that must be proven. Below are these three elements, as well as examples illuminating each.
There Is a Duty Owed to the Patient by the Physician
The first element to be established in a medical malpractice lawsuit is that the physician owed a duty of care to the patient. This means there must be a formal patient-to-doctor relationship in place.
For example, if you book a medical appointment and visit with a doctor in their office, then the standard for the duty owed has been met. Likewise, if you are admitted to a hospital and a physician arrives in your room to examine you, the doctor has willingly undertaken the obligation to provide appropriate care.
However, awareness upon the part of the physician is a key factor concerning whether or not the duty of care is, indeed, in place. A physician cannot be unknowingly thrust into this role and subsequently be found liable for medical malpractice.
For example, if a doctor is interviewed for a newspaper article about a particular issue of concern, a reader will find it difficult to establish an owed duty of care if they claim the doctor's words caused them harm. Since the physician had no way of knowing who would read the words and never agreed to a direct doctor-to-patient role, chances are high the courts would rule against the patient (or other plaintiff).
The Physician Commits a Negligent Act
The second essential element that must be established in a medical malpractice lawsuit is that the doctor did actually commit a negligent act. Negligence is defined as an action that a competent physician would not have undertaken in the care of their patients.
Since the concept of negligence can be nebulous and difficult to pinpoint with precision, it is often easier to identify actions that are not negligent. For example, poor bedside manner is not defined as negligence.
From a negligence perspective, the law doesn't require that physicians be courteous or respectful. Though the various provincial authorities, such as the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, may take disciplinary action against doctors who treat patients rudely or exhibit other unprofessional conduct, negligence from a legal point-of-view is a different matter altogether.
In addition, even lackadaisical or mediocre care isn't considered to be negligent from a legal perspective. Though it may be viewed as a moral failure, physicians don't have to "go the extra mile" to treat patients, and a lawsuit for medical malpractice will likely go nowhere if it is based upon such grounds.
The Negligent Act Caused Specific Harm to the Patient
The third legal element that must be established before medical malpractice can be shown to exist is that the negligent act caused specific harm to a patient. If a doctor commits an act that is negligent, but it doesn't harm a patient, then there is no legal standing to sue for malpractice.
For example, if a doctor orders a medication that is clearly dangerous to a patient, but the patient receives the medication without experiencing any ill effects, the patient will not prevail in a malpractice suit.
In addition, if the negligent act causes harm that is overshadowed by the natural consequences of an illness or injury, then it is unlikely for a patient or plaintiff to successfully sue for malpractice. For example, if an alcoholic dies from liver failure, then it will be challenging for the survivors to successfully sue for malpractice no matter what was done by the doctor.
Consult with a malpractice lawyer as you consider a case against a doctor.