Avoidable harms that occur as the result of medical malpractice are far more common than many people realize. In fact, medical errors are now the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer.
Furthermore, patients often believe that the majority of wrongful medical errors take place in hospitals, but only a quarter of care is delivered in traditional hospital facilities. Most medical malpractice actually takes place in other care settings, such as outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, dentist offices, blood testing laboratories, and many others.
Receiving compensation for an avoidable harm suffered at the hands of a healthcare provider is a complex undertaking. Pond Lehocky Giordano has an extensive team of skilled and compassionate medical malpractice attorneys that is experienced in helping our clients get the justice they deserve.
Causes of Medical Malpractice
There are many forms of medical malpractice, but all involve an injury or death that could have been avoided.
One study of medical errors found that failure to diagnose was the leading cause of avoidable patient injuries and deaths. Failure to diagnose includes instances where the healthcare provider misses an injury or illness that they should have discovered, as well as when they improperly diagnose one injury or illness as another.
Another unfortunate common cause of medical malpractice is negligence by act or omission by a healthcare provider. Such treatment falls below the standard of care set by the medical community. The easiest way to understand negligent medical treatment is to ask: Would a competent healthcare provider faced with the same circumstance have made this error? If the answer is no, negligence has likely occurred.
The third most common cause of medical malpractice is a failure to warn, which occurs when a medical professional treats a patient without disclosing all known risks associated with the treatment or obtaining informed consent to go ahead.
There are many other causes of medical malpractice, including:
- Breaches of doctor-patient confidentiality
- Gross negligence (e.g. reckless disregard for the patient’s safety)
- Improper hospital care (e.g. lack of sanitation)
Who Can Be Held Responsible?
Physicians are not the only healthcare providers associated with medical malpractice.
Others include (but are not limited to):
- Nurses and Nurse Practitioners
- Clinical Social Workers
- Physician Assistants
- Medical Technicians
The vast majority of medical malpractice cases are civil actions called torts, though in rare cases, such as when a healthcare provider acts with gross negligence or recklessness, criminal charges are sometimes also pursued.
Though most medical procedures and treatments are ordered at the direction of a physician, nurses and other support staff are not immune from liability if they act negligently and a patient is injured or dies as a result — even if the support staff was just “following orders.”
Likewise, the organizations that employ, manage, and partner with healthcare providers (e.g. hospitals, clinics, managed care companies, and medical corporations) can be held vicariously liable for the wrongful actions of their employees and contractors in some situations.
Medical malpractice is a complex legal undertaking. Often cases are settled before anyone ever sets foot in a courtroom. But should the parties fail to come to an agreement, the matter can move towards a trial.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, however, requires plaintiffs meet several burdens before they can bring a claim:
Statute of Limitations
In Pennsylvania, an injured patient must file their claim within two years of the occurrence of the alleged medical error — or within two years of the moment they learn of the error (or should have reasonably become aware of it).
However, regardless of when the patient reasonably should have become aware of the alleged error, no medical malpractice claim can be filed in Pennsylvania more than seven years from the date of the original injurious event — with one exception: cases where a foreign object was left inside a patient.
Certificate of Merit
Before a trial can go ahead, a document must be signed by the plaintiff or their attorney which affirms that an “appropriate licensed professional” has examined the claim and determined a “reasonable probability” exists that the defendant’s conduct “fell outside acceptable professional standards” and caused the alleged harm.
The next step in the process typically involves the sharing of information by both parties, such as documents like medical records, interrogatories (written answers to questions), and depositions (oral answers to questions given under oath).
At trial, both parties will likely present expert witnesses who will argue over what the standard of care required in the case is and whether it was breached. Only individuals with education, training, and experience relevant to the specific issue in dispute can serve as expert witnesses.
In Pennsylvania, the standard for whether scientific evidence can be presented to the court requires that it is “generally accepted” in the relevant scientific community.
At the conclusion of the trial, a judge or jury will weigh the evidence and determine which side’s argument is most credible.
Unlike many other states, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has no upper limit on the economic or non-economic medical malpractice damages a plaintiff can be awarded by a judge or jury. Pennsylvania does cap punitive damages, which are damages awarded to punish the defendant and deter others from making a similar error, but they are generally rare in medical malpractice cases.
Economic damages include lost wages or earning capacity and medical and life care expenses (e.g. the cost of hiring household help or medical aides), all of which can be assessed for past and future losses.
Non-economic damages are awarded to compensate for physical harms (e.g. disfigurement or complete or partial loss of vision, a limb, or an organ) and psychological harms (e.g. reduced enjoyment of life due to temporary or permanent disability, loss of a loved one, loss of companionship, or severe pain and emotional distress).