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What Is a Doctor's Duty of Care?

If a doctor harms you, you may have a medical malpractice case. State laws define whether a personal injury inflicted by your health care provider gives rise to a cause of action. This means state laws determine whether you can sue.

The laws tend to vary in the following ways:

Like general negligence claims, medical malpractice claims hinge upon the following:

Medical malpractice is covered under tort law. See FindLaw's Medical Malpractice Liability and Medical Malpractice Legal Help sections for more articles and resources.

A Physician Owes a Duty

In medical malpractice law, a common claim is medical negligence by the doctor or medical professional. To prove medical negligence, a patient (or claimant) will need to prove duty of care, breach of the duty of care, causation, and damages.

Doctors and medical professionals owe their patients a duty of care. In order to prove a doctor's medical negligence, a patient must prove that the physician owed a duty of care. If the patient cannot, they may not have a medical malpractice action.

Remember: A regular person has no duty to assist injured persons absent a special relationship. Examples of a relationship include doctor-patient relationship, attorney-client privilege, and guardian-child relationship.

A doctor-patient relationship creates the doctor's duty of care to the patient.

For example, a doctor dining in a restaurant has no legal duty to assist a fellow customer suffering a heart attack. The Hippocratic oath is not legally binding. If the doctor does not help the customer, the customer cannot sue for medical malpractice against the doctor.

But if the doctor begins to help someone with a medical condition, the doctor may be liable for injuries caused during the course of care.

Examples of when a doctor breaches their duty of care include:

  • Misreading a patient's medical records
  • Any medical error that leads to personal injury or wrongful death

A doctor's conduct must reflect the skills, quality of care, and level of diligence expected of other competent physicians. Also, a doctor's conduct must be the same as other physicians under similar circumstances.

To know whether your doctor has broken their duty of care, consider the following:

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

Expert witnesses will examine the doctor's actions and consider the list above. To qualify as an expert witness, they must be an expert in their field. The expert will need to have the same level of training, certification, and experience as the doctor they are reviewing.

Usually, the expert witness is a retired physician or a doctor with decades of experience who is well-respected in their field. Through expert testimony, the witness will write a report detailing their analysis of the doctor's actions.

Vicarious Liability

A negligent doctor or health care professional may not be the only defendant in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The hospital where your doctor works as a staff member could also be liable. Under respondeat superior (also known as vicarious liability), the hospital may be liable. "Respondeat superior" is the Latin translation of "let the master answer." This theory allows an employer to be liable for the negligence of its employees.

One reason a hospital can be liable in a medical malpractice suit is that hospitals give doctors staff privileges. The hospital might attempt to argue that it plays a limited role in directing or supervising the work of its medical staff.

Many doctors belong to private medical practices, such as limited partnerships or limited liability companies. Under vicarious liability, these groups can also be liable to injured patients.

A doctor may be liable for negligence caused by its assistants and staff members when carrying out a doctor's orders or caring for patients. Likewise, an attending physician is generally liable for negligence caused by interns and medical students following a doctor's guidance.

Get a Legal Evaluation of Your Malpractice Claim

To have an actionable medical malpractice claim, you must have a personal injury caused by your doctor's actions during medical treatment. If so, you may be able to obtain a damage award if your doctor or medical care provider was negligent. Also, if your doctor was egregiously irresponsible, you may have a claim for punitive damages.

Evaluating the facts in a medical malpractice claim requires significant expertise. Such claims are not straightforward. Insurance companies can be difficult to deal with and may be unwilling to pay your medical bills. Sometimes, it takes legal action with the help of a medical malpractice lawyer to get the insurance companies to cooperate.

To find out whether a physician was negligent in their duty of care, you may want to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney for legal advice.

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