What Is Medical Negligence?

image021Many people wonder what medical negligence is. Medical negligence (also known as “medical malpractice”) is just the application of ordinary negligence principles to the medical setting. Negligence means that someone has not acted carefully (or put another way, has not acted prudently). In everyday life, people have the duty to act carefully so as to not injure other people. A good example of this is driving a car — people have a duty to drive carefully, and if they don’t, they will be liable for any injury that they cause to someone else, for instance by running a red light and hitting someone. If they run a red light and hit somebody, then they (and their insurance company) owe compensation to the person whom they injured. Washington law has articulated this in the following way:

Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care. It is the doing of some act that a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances or the failure to do some act that a reasonably careful person would have done under the same or similar circumstances.

(See Washington Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil 10.01.)

This same concept applies to professionals of different types, such as doctors, nurses, hospitals, and other healthcare providers, as well as accountants, lawyers, engineers, architects, etc. However, because professionals have specialized education, training, and experience, they are held to the standard of what another reasonably careful or prudent professional of their type would have done under the same or similar circumstances. The standard that a reasonably careful or prudent doctor or other healthcare provider is required to adhere to is called the “standard of care.” With regard to doctors, Washington law articulates this duty as follows:

A doctor owes to the patient a duty to comply with the standard of care for one of the profession or class to which he or she belongs.

A doctor has a duty to exercise the degree of skill, care, and learning expected of a reasonably prudent doctor in the State of Washington acting in the same or similar circumstances at the time of the care or treatment in question.

Failure to exercise such skill, care, and learning constitutes a breach of the standard of care and is negligence….

(See Washington Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil 105.01; emphasis added.)

If the doctor is a specialist, then he or she is required to act as would a reasonably careful or prudent specialist under the same or similar circumstances. (See Washington Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil 105.02.) For example, a cardiologist would have to act as would a reasonably careful or prudent cardiologist under the same or similar circumstances.

Next Step, Causation and Damages.

Girl in hosp bedIf a healthcare provider has been medically negligent (in other words, has not met the applicable standard of care), then we need two more things before that provider is liable to pay compensation to the injured patient — proximate causation and damages.

The “damages” part is easy: if a doctor or other healthcare provider has been negligent but the negligence hasn’t actually hurt the patient, then the patient (and his or her family) has no right to recovery (because no one was hurt). But, if the healthcare provider has been negligent and if the patient has been hurt (or died), then the next step is to show that the negligence was in fact what injured the patient or caused his or her death. This is called “causation” or “proximate causation.” Washington law defines proximate causation as follows:

The term “proximate cause” means a cause which in a direct sequence produces the injury complained of and without which [cause] such injury would not have happened. There may be more than one proximate cause of an injury.

(See Washington Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil 15.01.)

So, in a medical negligence lawsuit, before the doctor or other healthcare provider will be liable to pay damages to the injured patient and his or her family, it must be shown that the healthcare provider did not act prudently under the circumstances and that his or her failure to act prudently caused the injury suffered by the patient. In order to show this, testimony from an expert witness usually is required. (For an explanation of what expert witnesses are and how they are used in medical malpractice lawsuits, click here.)

Healthcare Providers Can Be Liable for More Than Just Negligence.

We also want to point out one more thing to help you in understanding medical negligence. In this website, we use the term “medical negligence” as shorthand for any type of liability for injury resulting from health care. However, in reality there are several distinct varieties of liability for health care. These are defined by Washington law in the Revised Code of Washington (“RCW”), at Chapter 7.70. As set out in RCW section 7.70.030, a healthcare provider may be liable to an injured person who can establish one or more of the following:

  1. The injury resulted from the failure of the healthcare provider to follow the accepted standard of care (this is called “medical negligence” and is largely what we discuss in this website);
  2. A healthcare provider promised the patient (or his/her representative) that the injury suffered would not occur (so-called “promises to cure”); or
  3. The injury resulted from health care to which the patient or his/her representative did not consent (this is called “lack of informed consent”).

Liability can also be imposed against manufacturers of defective medical devices (including prescription drugs), under the Washington State Products Liability Act.

Of the above, medical negligence comprises the great bulk of the cases of injury or death to patients, and so that is why we have focused our discussion on medical negligence. However, in the appropriate (but relatively uncommon) situation, a healthcare provider may be liable for having given a promise to cure (if the cure is not achieved) or for failing to obtain informed consent from the patient, and a manufacturer can be held liable for a defective medical device (including a drug).

Contact Us

There are many ways that medical errors happen. If you would like us to evaluate whether a healthcare provider may have made a medical error and caused substantial harm to you or a loved one, contact us and ask. You may contact us either by phone, by e-mail, or by filling out the brief confidential questionnaire on the left. It is free.

We handle cases throughout all of Washington.