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What is Medical Malpractice?

Elements of Medical Malpractice: Causation

The terms "medical malpractice" and "surgical malpractice" refer to mistakes, carelessness, errors or omissions that amount to "professional negligence" on the part of doctors, surgeons or other health care professionals.

Professional negligence occurs when the care provided by a doctor, surgeon or other health care provider falls below the accepted standard of care within their field of practice (Breach of the Accepted Standard of Care) and, as a result (Causation), the patient is caused to suffer damages in the form of personal injury, economic injury, and/or wrongful death (Damages).

Elements of Medical Malpractice
The Three Elements Required: 1. Breach, 2. Causation, and 3. Damages

Direct and Proximate Cause

Causation is what it sounds like. For the causation element of a medical malpractice case to be met, the breach of the accepted standard of care within the field of professional practice must "cause" something bad to happen (legally compensable damages). Consider the example on the "breach of the accepted standard of care" page where the doctor failed to diagnose a malignant, cancerous tumor when it was plainly visible on an x-ray at an early stage when it could have been treated successfully with full recovery. Assume that if the doctor identified the tumor on the x-ray and diagnosed the person with cancer at such an early stage that the person could have been treated and would have recovered fully from the cancer. Instead, the cancer went untreated and the person died as a result. In such a case, the failure to diagnose the cancer at its early stage when the tumor was visible on the x-ray constitutes a breach of the accepted standard of care within the professional medical field of radiology. The breach of the accepted standard of care was the cause of the wrongful death of the person because, but for the doctor's failure to diagnose the cancer, the person would have been treated and would have fully recovered. The breach of the accepted standard of care was the cause of the wrongful death.

There are times, however, that a doctor's breach of the accepted standard of care, thankfully, does not cause personal injury or wrongful death. For example, consider the example above about the doctor's failure to diagnose a malignant cancerous tumor. But, instead of the cancer being at an early stage and treatable, assume that the x-ray was taken after the cancer had spread throughout the person's body and was not treatable at the time of the x-ray. Then, assume that a week later, another doctor reviewed the x-ray, identified the tumor, and diagnosed the person as suffering late-stage, untreatable cancer. While the first doctor who misread the x-ray and failed identify the tumor and to diagnose the cancer clearly failed to fulfil his duty to meet or exceed the accepted standard of care within his professional field, his breach of the accepted standard of care was not the "cause" of an injury. In this example, even if the doctor had diagnosed the malignant, cancerous tumor a week earlier, there was nothing that could have been done to treat the person with late stage, incurable cancer. Similarly, in this example, no "damages" were suffered because the breach of the accepted standard of care in failing to diagnose the cancer a week earlier did not cause any change for the worse in the person's condition. Also, diagnosing the cancer a week earlier, in the example, could not have resulted in any change of the person's condition for the better.

Links to More Information about the Three Elements Required

All three elements must exist and be provable for there to be valid case for medical malpractice. Click the blue text links for more information.

I. Breach of the Accepted Standard of Care

A. Acts

B. Omissions (Failure to Act)

II. Causation

III. Damages

A. Economic Damages

1. Out-of-Pocket Expenses

2. Wage Loss

B. Non-Economic Damages

1. Physical Pain and Suffering

2. Emotional Pain and Suffering


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