Understanding the Term “Medical Malpractice”

Many people believe that the term “medical malpractice” means a doctor can be sued any time a doctor harms or makes a mistake while treating a patient. Like most states, Louisiana’s Medical Malpractice Act protects doctors from frivolous, or meritless litigation, meaning incidental harm or minor mistakes made by a doctor will probably not result in a malpractice violation. The person bringing a malpractice claim against a doctor must prove certain elements exist, most commonly that: (1) the patient suffered a significant injury; (2) the doctor or hospital staff did not meet the standard of care typical of medical professionals; and (3) the medical mistake or lack of care was the direct cause of the patient’s injury.

To help you understand, please consider the following examples:
(A) A patient comes into a doctor’s office complaining of chest pains and indigestion. The doctor fails to make a diagnosis or provide treatment and sends the patient home. The patient suffers a heart attack the next day.
(B) A patient comes into a doctor’s office complaining of chest pains and indigestion. The doctor fails to make a diagnosis or provide treatment and sends the patient home. The patient suffers a heart attack a year later.

In both examples, the patient suffered a significant injury– a heart attack. However, only the patient in example (A) would potentially have a medical malpractice suit. Patient (A) might not have suffered a heart attack the next day if the doctor had run more tests, made a proper diagnosis, given the patient instructions on what to do if the symptoms persisted, or done anything else a doctor facing a similar situation might do. A jury could reasonably infer that the doctor’s lack of care, by not providing a diagnosis or treatment, was the cause of the patient’s heart attack. In example (B), the amount of time between the patient’s visit to the doctor and the patient’s heart attack is too long for causation [that the doctor’s lack of care caused the patient’s injury] to be proven.

Although the explanation above is pretty clear, most medical malpractice cases are not. Medical malpractice claims can be difficult to prove because it can be hard to draw the link between the patient’s injury and the doctor’s action or inaction measured by the medical profession’s standard of care. Most of the time, you will need a medical professional to serve as an expert witness to explain how your doctor’s mistake caused your injury.

If you believe you are the victim of medical malpractice, you should consult an attorney. The attorney can help you understand legal jargon like what constitutes a “significant” injury or how “causation” can be proved, both of which are more complicated than the above examples would lead you to believe. Attorneys can also find qualified medical experts to help explain your case to the court or to a jury, should your case get that far. Also keep in mind that most states have a statute of limitations on how long you have to file a medical malpractice claim from the date the alleged injury occurred. In Louisiana, medical malpractice claims must be filed within one year from the date of the alleged act, omission, or neglect, or within one year from the date of discovery of the alleged act, omission, or neglect. La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 9:5628 (West Supp. 1997).

Please feel free to contact the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and an attorney specializing in medical malpractice claims will be more than happy to discuss any questions and concerns you have about a potential medical malpractice suit.