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What Is a Doctor's Duty of Care?

If your doctor has harmed you, you may be able to pursue them on medical malpractice grounds. But keep in mind that state laws govern whether what happened at your care provider's hands is a cause of action you can pursue.

The laws tend to vary in the following ways:

  • Time limits to bring a lawsuit, also known as statutes of limitations
  • Whether the theory of liability under consideration is a "cognizable" one—or one a court determines it possesses the authority to review
  • Whether the parties actually qualify to be either the defendant or the plaintiff in a medical malpractice claim—or that they are "proper" parties to this particular variety of lawsuit
  • The qualifications for an "expert" witness

More generally speaking, like other negligence claims, medical malpractice claims hinge upon the following, which speak to the duty a physician owes their patient:

  • Standards of care
  • The "reasonable person" standard
  • The doctor's duty of care to the patient

See FindLaw's Medical Malpractice Liability and Medical Malpractice Legal Help sections for more articles and resources.

Physician Owes a Duty

It isn't possible to prove your doctor's liability until you demonstrate that your physician owed you a duty of care. If you cannot demonstrate that, your doctor's conduct cannot be evaluated in meaningful ways.

Generally speaking, a person has no affirmative duty to assist injured persons in the absence of a special relationship with them. Examples of such a relationship include the bond between a doctor and their patient, an attorney and their client, and a guardian and their ward.

It is only in your relationship with your doctor, as their patient, that you can establish a duty of care. For example, a doctor dining in a restaurant has no affirmative duty to assist a fellow customer who is suffering a heart attack. If the doctor merely continues eating and does not come to the aid of that fellow customer, the cardiac arrest sufferer would not have a viable cause of action for malpractice against the doctor. But once a doctor decides to assist others and actually engages in the act of caretaking, as they have done with you, they become liable for any injury that results from negligence during the course of care. They may also be liable for injuries caused as a result of that care.

In other words, it is not until you enter into a relationship with a doctor, as your doctor, that they owe you this duty. Your doctor's conduct must measure up to the skills, quality of care, and level of diligence possessed by, or expected of, other reasonably competent physicians. And your doctor's conduct at any given time must also measure up to that of other reasonably competent physicians in the same or similar circumstances as those that you believe resulted in your injury.

When gauging whether your doctor has conducted themselves in this way, the following are always crucial to consider:

  • The area of medicine in which your physician practices
  • The customary or accepted practices of other physicians in your doctor's area of expertise (which is known as the "locality rule")
  • The level of equipment and facilities available at the time and where the medical care was provided
  • Any urgent or unexpected demands of the circumstances, if any, surrounding the medical services that were given

"Expert witnesses" are required to assess all of these things. To qualify as an expert that can speak to whether your doctor violated their duty of care, such a witness typically would need to share the same or similar skills with your doctor. In general, they might also need to possess the same level and type of training, certification, and experience.

Vicarious Liability

A doctor who has been negligent may not be the only defendant in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The hospital where your doctor works as a staff member, for example, could also be held liable. Through a theory of liability known as "respondeat superior," what is known as "vicarious liability" could be at play. Translating from the Latin as "let the master answer," such a theory allows for an employer to be held liable for the negligence of its employees.

Often, however, hospitals give doctors "staff privileges." Referring to these privileges, the hospital might attempt to prove the limited role it plays in directing or supervising the work of each member of its medical staff. Many doctors also belong to private medical practices, such as limited partnerships or limited liability companies. Through theories of vicarious liability, these groups could also be held liable.

Of equal importance is how a doctor is generally liable for their assistants' and staff members' negligence when those individuals are carrying out a doctor's orders or caring for patients. Likewise, an attending physician is generally liable for any negligence on the part of interns and medical students under the physician's guidance. To put it another way, under these circumstances, the doctor or attending physician assumes the duty of care.

Get a Legal Evaluation of Your Malpractice Claim

If you have suffered injuries as a result of your medical care, you may be able to claim damages if your doctor or medical care provider was negligent. Evaluating the facts in a medical malpractice claim requires significant expertise. Typically, such claims are not straightforward for so many reasons. To find out whether a physician was negligent in their duty of care, you may want to contact an experienced legal professional.

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