The Complexities of Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

When Kimberly Carter, a Little Rock, AR, resident, was visiting family in Louisiana in November of 2001, a misstep in a hole in the ground led to a legal battle that would not be resolved until 2010. After suffering an injury from the hole, Carter was transported to Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Lake Charles. Dr. Clark Gunderson, an orthopedic surgeon, viewed Carter’s x-rays and determined she suffered a spiral fracture in her right tibia that would require surgery. Carter chose to stay in Louisiana to have Dr. Gunderson perform the surgery.

After the surgery and some time had passed, Carter would later sue Dr. Gunderson for medical malpractice when a mal-rotation in excess of fifteen degrees was discovered by Dr. Johannes Michael Gruenwald, a board-certified orthopaedic traumatologist at the University of Arkansas Medical Center. Dr. Gruenwald was providing Carter’s post-operative care. In August of 2007, Carter filed a suit alleging malpractice by Dr. Gunderson. A three-day trial resulted in a jury verdict finding that Dr. Gunderson had not deviated from applicable standards. This judgment was affirmed on appeal.

According to the Supreme Court case Martin v. East Jefferson General Hospital

In a medical malpractice action against a physician, the plaintiff carries a two-fold burden of proof. The plaintiff must first establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the doctor’s treatment fell below the ordinary standard of care expected of physicians in his medical specialty, and must then establish a causal relationship between the alleged negligent treatment and the injury sustained.

This ruling helps illustrate three components a potential plaintiff, and his or her attorney, must consider when determining the likelihood of a favorable ruling. First, it is important to determine the standard of care for not just medical practice in general, but for the specialty in question. Second, one must consider whether the care given fell below that standard. According to Charpentier v. Lammico Ins. Co., the law does not require perfection in medical diagnoses and treatment. Thus, a less-than-perfect result in a surgery such as this will not necessarily result in a favorable judgment for a plaintiff. Third, it must be established whether there is a causal connection between the failure to meet the standard and the increased damage suffered by the plaintiff (whether the failure actually caused some further injury to the patient). This means that even if there was a deviation from the applicable standard, if no harm was caused there will not be a successful claim. That is to say, if a patient suffers additional harm and there was a deviation in the standard, there still might not be a successful claim if it cannot be shown that the deviation caused the harm.

This is not the end of the road for a court analysis or ruling as the analysis above takes place at the trial court level. Like Carter, some plaintiffs will not be successful at this level and will wish to appeal the decision. When a trial court has made reasonable fact findings regarding the components above, an appellate court will not overturn the decision unless there is manifest error. That a reviewing court would have come out differently does not necessarily mean a decision will be overturned; that decision must have been unreasonable given the circumstances.

A good lawyer can guide a potential malpractice plaintiff through these considerations. After suffering an initial injury or illness, plus added damages resulting from treatment, no patient wants to jump into an unsuccessful claim because of a lack of knowledge regarding the components of a malpractice claim. This is why hiring an attorney with your interests at heart, as well as a successful track record with malpractice claims, is very important.