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Medical malpractice is professional negligence by act or omission by a health care provider in which care provided deviates from accepted standards of practice in the medical community and causes injury or death to the patient. Standards and regulations for medical malpractice vary by country and jurisdiction within countries. Medical professionals are required to maintain professional liability insurance to offset the risk and costs of lawsuits based on medical malpractice.
A doctor would be liable for (depending on the circumstances) such things as prescribing experimental drugs and performing cosmetic surgery.
The plaintiff is or was the patient, or a legally designated party acting on behalf of the patient, or – in the case of a wrongful-death suit – the executor or administrator of a deceased patient's estate.
The defendant is the health care provider. Although a 'health care provider' usually refers to a physician, the term includes any medical care provider, including dentists, nurses, and therapists. As illustrated in Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas v Bush, 122 S.W. 3d 835 (Tex. 2003), "following orders" may not protect nurses and other non-physicians from liability when committing negligent acts. Relying on vicarious liability or direct corporate negligence, claims may also be brought against hospitals, clinics, managed care organizations or medical corporations for the mistakes of their employees.
Like all other tort cases, the plaintiff or their attorney files a lawsuit in a court with appropriate jurisdiction. Between the filing of suit and the trial, the parties are required to share information through discovery. Such information includes interrogatories, requests for documents and depositions. If both parties agree, the case may be settled pre-trial on negotiated terms. If the parties cannot agree, the case will proceed to trial.
The plaintiff has the burden of proof to prove all the elements by a preponderance (51%) of evidence. At trial, both parties will usually present experts to testify as to the standard of care required, and other technical issues. The fact-finder (judge or jury) must then weigh all the evidence and determine which side is the most credible.
The fact-finder will render a verdict for the prevailing party. If the plaintiff prevails, the fact-finder will assess damages within the parameters of the judge's instructions. The verdict is then reduced to the judgment of the court. The losing party may move for a new trial. In a few jurisdictions, a plaintiff who is dissatisfied by a small judgment may move for additur. In most jurisdictions, a defendant who is dissatisfied with a large judgment may move for remittitur. Either side may take an appeal from the judgment.
Expert witnesses must be qualified by the Court, based on the prospective experts qualifications and the standards set from legal precedent. To be qualified as an expert in a medical malpractice case, a person must have a sufficient knowledge, education, training, or experience regarding the specific issue before the court to qualify the expert to give a reliable opinion on a relevant issue. The qualifications of the expert are not the deciding factors as to whether the individual will be qualified, although they are certainly important considerations. Expert testimony is not qualified "just because somebody with a diploma says it is so" (United States v. Ingham, 42 M.J. 218, 226 [A.C.M.R. 1995]). In addition to appropriate qualifications of the expert, the proposed testimony must meet certain criteria for reliability. In the United States, two models for evaluating the proposed testimony are used:
The more common (and some believe more reliable) approach used by all federal courts and most state courts is the 'gatekeeper' model, which is a test formulated from the US Supreme Court cases Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (509 U.S. 579 ), General Electric Co. v. Joiner (522 U.S. 136 ), and Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael (526 U.S. 137 . Before the trial, a Daubert hearing will take place before the judge (without the jury). The trial court judge must consider evidence presented to determine whether an expert's "testimony rests on a reliable foundation and is relevant to the task at hand." (Daubert, 509 U.S. at 597). The Daubert hearing considers 4 questions about the testimony the prospective expert proposes:
Some state courts still use the Frye test that relies on scientific consensus to assess the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. Daubert expressly rejected the earlier federal rule's incorporation of the Frye test. (Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593-594) Expert testimony that would have passed the Frye test is now excluded under the more stringent requirements of Federal Rules of Evidence as construed by Daubert.
In view of Daubert and Kuhmo, the pre trial preparation of expert witnesses is critical. A problem with Daubert is that the presiding judge may admit testimony which derives from highly contested data. The judge may expand the limits contained in the "school of thought" precedent. Papers that are self-published may be admiited as the basis for expert testimony. Non-peer reviewed journals may also be admitted in similar fashion. The only criterion is the opinion of a single judge who, in all likelihood, has no relevant scientific or medical training.
Many states also require that a certifcate of merit before a malpractice lawsuit is filed which requires a report from a medical doctor that the doctor accused of negligence breached the standard of care and caused injury to the Plaintiff.
The plaintiff's damages may include compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are both economic and non-economic. Economic damages include financial losses such as lost wages (sometimes called lost earning capacity), medical expenses and life care expenses. These damages may be assessed for past and future losses. Non-economic damages are assessed for the injury itself: physical and psychological harm, such as loss of vision, loss of a limb or organ, the reduced enjoyment of life due to a disability or loss of a loved one, severe pain and emotional distress. Punitive damages are only awarded in the event of wanton and reckless conduct.
In one particular circumstance, physicians, particularly psychiatrists are held to a different standard than other defendants in a tort claim. Suicide is legally viewed as an act which terminates a chain of causality. Although the defendant may be held negligent for another's suicide, he /she is not responsible for damages which occur after the act. An exception is made for physicians. Although there exists no protocol or algorithm for predicting suicidality with any level of certainty, courts throughout the United States have found physicians to be negligent. Furthermore, damages are routinely assessed based on losses which would hypothetically accrue after the act of suicide.
There is only a limited time during which a medical malpractice lawsuit can be filed. These time limits are set by statute in a common law legal system. In civil law systems, similar provisions are usually part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as "periods of prescription" or "prescriptive periods." The length of the time period and when that period begins vary per jurisdiction and type of malpractice. For a full list of statute of limitations, see the article Medical Malpractice Statutes of Limitation.
A 2004 study of medical malpractice claims in the United States examining primary care malpractice found that though incidence of negligence in hospitals produced a greater proportion of severe outcomes, the total number of errors and deaths due to errors were greater for outpatient settings. No single medical condition was associated with more than five percent of all negligence claims, and one-third of all claims were the result of misdiagnosis.
A recent study by Healthgrades found that an average of 195,000 hospital deaths in each of the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 in the U.S. were due to potentially preventable medical errors. Researchers examined 37 million patient records and applied the mortality and economic impact models developed by Dr. Chunliu Zhan and Dr. Marlene R. Miller in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in October 2003. The Zhan and Miller study supported the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 1999 report conclusion, which found that medical errors caused up to 98,000 deaths annually and should be considered a national epidemic. Some researchers questioned the accuracy of the 1999 IOM study, reporting both significant subjectivity in determining which deaths were "avoidable" or due to medical error and an erroneous assumption that 100% of patients would have survived if optimal care had been provided. A 2001 study in JAMA estimated that only 1 in 10,000 patients admitted to the hospital would have lived for 3 months or more had "optimal" care been provided.
A 2006 follow-up to the 1999 Institute of Medicine study found that medication errors are among the most common medical mistakes, harming at least 1.5 million people every year. According to the study, 400,000 preventable drug-related injuries occur each year in hospitals, 800,000 in long-term care settings, and roughly 530,000 among Medicare recipients in outpatient clinics. The report stated that these are likely to be conservative estimates. In 2000 alone, the extra medical costs incurred by preventable drug related injuries approximated $887 million – and the study looked only at injuries sustained by Medicare recipients, a subset of clinic visitors. None of these figures take into account lost wages and productivity or other costs.
Most (73%) settled malpractice claims involve medical error. A 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that claims without evidence of error "are not uncommon, but most [72%] are denied compensation. The vast majority of expenditures [54%] go toward litigation over errors and payment of them. The overhead costs of malpractice litigation are exorbitant." Physicians examined the records of 1452 closed malpractice claims. Ninety-seven percent were associated with injury; of them, 73% got compensation. Three percent of the claims were not associated with injuries; of them, 16% got compensation. 63% were associated with errors; of them, 73% got compensation (average $521,560). Thirty-seven percent were not associated with errors; of them, 28% got compensation (average $313,205). Claims not associated with errors accounted for 13 to 16% percent of the total costs. For every dollar spent on compensation, 54 cents went to administrative expenses (including lawyers, experts, and courts). Claims involving errors accounted for 78 percent of administrative costs.
Doctors' groups, patients, and insurance companies have criticized medical malpractice litigation as expensive, adversarial, unpredictable, and inefficient. They claim that the cost of medical malpractice litigation in the United States has steadily increased at almost 12 percent annually since 1975. Jury Verdict Research, a database of plaintiff and defense verdicts, says awards in medical liability cases increased 43 percent in 1999, from $700,000 to $1,000,000.
These critics assert that these rate increases are causing doctors to go out of business or move to states with more favorable tort systems. Not everyone agrees, though, that medical malpractice lawsuits are solely causing these rate increases. A 2003 report from the General Accounting Office found multiple reasons for these rate increases, with medical malpractice lawsuits being the primary driver. Despite noting multiple reasons for rate increases, the report goes on to state that the "GAO found that losses on medical malpractice claims-which make up the largest part of insurers’ costs-appear to be the primary driver of rate increases in the long run."
The major tort reform proposals have been:
Proponents of medical liability reform argue that medical malpractice lawsuits restrict patient access to health care by driving physicians out of business or encouraging them to limit high-risk procedures. One in 12 obstetricians who have reported changes in their practice as a result of the risk or fear of professional liability claims have stopped delivering babies.
Physician advocacy groups say 60% of liability claims against doctors are dropped, withdrawn, or dismissed without payment. However even those cases have a price, costing an average of more than $22,000 to defend in 2008 ($18,000 in 2007). Physicians are found not negligent in over 90% of cases that go to trial - yet more than $110,000 (2008 estimate, $100,000 in 2007) per case is spent defending those claims.
Malpractice has both direct and indirect costs, including "defensive medicine." According to the American Medical Association, defensive medicine increases health systems costs by between $84 and $151 billion each year. Studies place the direct and indirect costs of malpractice between 5% and 10% of total U.S. medical costs, as described below:
"About 10 percent of the cost of medical services is linked to malpractice lawsuits and more intensive diagnostic testing due to defensive medicine, according to a January 2006 report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP for the insurers’ group America’s Health Insurance Plans. The figures were taken from a March 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that estimated the direct cost of medical malpractice was 2 percent of the nation’s health-care spending and said defensive medical practices accounted for 5 percent to 9 percent of the overall expense."
Many supporters of medical liability reform believe that laws modeled after California's Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) should be passed at the federal level. "California is the perfect model for federal medical malpractice reform", said Lisa Maas, executive director of Californians Allied for Patient Protection. "MICRA is considered the gold standard in terms of what other states look to in tort reform in the medical liability area." 
MICRA was passed in the midst of a medical liability crisis in 1975, as premiums soared and some California physicians were unable to find liability coverage. The law limits non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases to $250,000. It also imposes a sliding scale on plaintiffs' attorney fees that prohibits them from charging more than 40% on any recovery.
MICRA advocates say the law has stabilized liability costs and preserved access to thousands of physicians, nurses, hospitals and other other healthcare providers. In particular, MICRA is said to protect specialty and high-risk services, including women's services, community clinics and rural providers that can least afford skyrocketing insurance costs. In addition, supporters say MICRA has saved healthcare consumers tens of billions of dollars by protecting against runaway damage awards.
The American Medical Association is leading a campaign to pass medical liability reform and protect patient access to health care. AMA Leaders are working with state medical associations to enact and defend strong tort reform laws. They continue to advocate for federal reforms based on solutions such as the MICRA laws.