The Difference between Medical Malpractice v. Ordinary Negligence

A 2004 Louisiana Supreme Court case provides a good explanation of the difference between Medical Malpractice and ordinary negligence. Not every negligent act of a qualified health care provider falls within the Medical Malpractice Act (MMA), La.Rev.Stat. 40:1299.41(1).

In Williams v. Hospital Service of Jefferson, the plaintiff was injured as she was pushed in a wheelchair by an employee of West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, Louisiana. A wheel on the chair came off, she fell, and she was injured. She sued the hospital for negligent failure to repair the wheelchair and failure to insure that the wheelchair was in proper working condition. The sole issue the Supreme Court considered was whether the alleged negligence fell under the MMA. The Supreme Court of Louisiana determined it did not and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

The Louisiana State Legislature enacted the MMA in 1975. One reason for the law was to provide health care providers with some advantages in actions against them for malpractice by limiting the damages that can be collected and requiring that each claim first be reviewed by a medical panel. The MMA only applies to claims “arising from medical malpractice” under La.Rev.Stat. 40:1299.41(1). Negligent behavior of health care providers that does not fit in the medical malpractice definition are governed by traditional tort principles. Courts have construed the coverage of the MMA strictly.

Under Louisiana law, malpractice is any unintentional tort or breach of contract in the execution or failure to execute health care services by a health care provider to a patient. Malpractice includes the transportation, loading and unloading of patients as well as defects in medicine, drugs, transplants, blood, tissue and flaws in implanted or external prosthetics.

To further clarify the definition, in Coleman v. Deno the Supreme Court provided six factors to be considered in determining whether malpractice is present:

First, was the wrong treatment related? Was it caused by a failure in professional skill?

Second, Does the determination of a breach of the standard or care require evidence from a medical expert?

Third, did the wrong involve assessment of the patient’s condition?

Fourth, Was the wrong committed by a physician against a patient? Did the wrong occur through an action that the hospital has a license to perform?

Fifth, would the injury have occurred if the patient did not seek treatment?

and Sixth, was the alleged wrong intentional?

The Supreme Court applied these tests to this case and found that the alleged wrong, the failure of the hospital to keep a wheelchair in proper working condition, was not sufficiently related to health care or professional services to fall within the MMA.

When an injured party seeks the help of an attorney in bringing a liability claim it is the attorney’s job to decide what type of claim should be brought. As here, just because the injury may have occurred to a patient in a hospital due to negligent behavior of a hospital employee does not necessarily make the case medical malpractice. Medical malpractice may not be the best legal theory to base a case on. A traditional negligence claim does not face the same damage limitations or medical review panel approval requirements as a medical malpractice claim.