Just about everyone has heard of medical malpractice, but many people are uncertain about what it is. Add in the term “medical negligence,” and most people become even more confused. Even many lawyers lack a clear understanding of the difference between standard negligence, medical negligence, and medical malpractice.
Standard negligence is a violation of the ordinary duty of care that we all owe each other. For example, when we get behind the wheel of a car, we all must drive safely. If you drive carelessly—by running a stoplight or going 95 miles per hour on the highway, for example—you have behaved negligently. You have breached your duty of care owed to all other drivers and passengers sharing the road with you.
The main difference between medical malpractice vs. negligence revolves around an ordinary standard of care versus a professional standard of care. Most people agree that the law should not hold a plumber rendering first aid at the scene of an accident to the same high standard of care applied to a doctor in a hospital emergency room treating the same patient.
Doctors undergo years of specialized training to develop their skills. Although you might agree that these people deserve their high salaries, this benefit comes with increased responsibility. A healthcare professional such as a doctor, having developed expertise, is expected to use it when treating patients. Failure to exercise appropriate care constitutes medical negligence.
Determining the Applicable Professional Standard of Care
Not all doctors undergo the same training. Consequently, some doctors must meet a higher standard of care than others. A general practitioner, for example, need not meet the same high standard of care as a cardiologist. Nevertheless, even a general practitioner should know enough to refer a patient to a cardiologist when circumstances demand.
When a patient alleges medical negligence in a lawsuit, proof generally requires the testimony of an expert witness. An expert witness is typically a professional who testifies about what a “reasonable doctor” would do under the same circumstances. If the jury believes the testimony, it will judge the defendant based on whether they met the standard of care described by the expert’s testimony. If not, then the victim has established medical negligence.
Damages and Causation: The Missing Pieces to the Medical Malpractice Puzzle
Proving medical negligence is not enough by itself to win you a dime in a medical malpractice lawsuit. You must also establish two more elementsーdamages and causation. These elements are the keys to understanding the difference between medical malpractice vs. negligence of a medical nature.
To win a medical malpractice claim, you must ask for a specific amount of money damages. You must establish exactly why you are entitled to this much money. Some of the standard items that constitute damages in a medical malpractice claim include:
- Present and future medical bills;
- Present and future lost earnings;
- Physical pain and suffering;
- Mental anguish; and
- Punitive damages (in unusually egregious cases).
Colorado law limits your ability to claim damages. For example, suppose your doctor negligently diagnosed you with a terminal disease when you were actually healthy. Simply frightening you and causing temporary angst is not enough to justify a viable medical malpractice lawsuit. You must prove physical injury as well. Such a diagnosis might qualify as medical negligence, but it simply does not amount to medical malpractice because you didn’t suffer any tangible, physical harm. However, it might constitute negligent infliction of emotional distress.
For you to have a valid medical malpractice claim, there must be a connection between your doctor’s medical negligence and your damages. In other words, your doctor’s actions must have caused your injury.
Suppose your health care provider committed an outrageous offense like operating on you while intoxicated. Now, let’s say that you suffer from an excruciating and debilitating medical condition.
You are not entitled to any recovery for damages unless you can prove that your doctor’s medical negligence actually caused your painful medical condition. This is a critical element of a successful medical malpractice claim. In this case—as egregious as operating while drunk is—if your condition turns out to be unrelated to your doctor’s intoxication, you will lose your medical malpractice claim. (The doctor may be in for some disciplinary proceedings that result in other penalties, but you will not get recovery for malpractice.)
The Standard of Proof in a Medical Malpractice Case
The applicable standard of proof in a medical malpractice case is a “preponderance of the evidence.” In plain English, this means that to win, the evidence favoring your claim must at least slightly outweigh the evidence favoring the defense. A preponderance of the evidence is much easier to prove than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal prosecutions.
Medical Malpractice vs. Medical Negligence: The Bottom Line
So how does medical malpractice differ from negligence? The difference is that medical negligence is merely a component of medical malpractice. In other words, the difference between medical malpractice and negligence can be stated as an equation:
Medical negligence + causation + damages = medical malpractice.
Don’t Give Up. We Can Help!
If you believe that you are the victim of medical errors, don’t lose hope. The Colorado medical errors attorneys at Gerash Steiner & Blanton, P.C., enjoy decades of combined experience in the courtroom, where it matters most.
We work on a contingency basis. That means that your legal fees will amount to an agreed-upon percentage of the amount we win for you, either in court or at the negotiating table. If we win nothing, you owe us nothing. We can afford to do this because we win almost all of our clients’ cases. We settle the vast majority of our clients’ claims out of court because defendants simply don’t want to face us in court. We will fight hard to ensure you receive every dime you deserve. Contact us online to schedule a free consultation.