A Matter of Trust: Medical Malpractice Law in California and Other Claims Against Medical Providers

Trust is a fundamental part of almost all human relationships.  We trust that our spouse will be loyal, that our mechanic will be capable, and that other drivers will follow the rules of the road.  Perhaps there is no relationship in which trust is so important as that between a patient and a doctor.  We put our health and our lives in their hands, as well as the well-being of our children, because we believe they have adequate training and will remain true to their oath to do no harm.  Sadly, as our San Francisco wrongful death lawyer knows all too well, sometimes things go horribly awry.  While not every negative outcome is cause for a lawsuit, when medical providers fail to adhere to a proper standard of care and the result is harm to the patient, a medical malpractice lawsuit, wrongful death, or another civil claim may be appropriate.

Tragic Death of a Young Girl Following Dental Procedure in San Ramon

While it is far too early to know what went wrong and if someone is legally at fault, a tragedy occurred at a Northern California dental office last weekend.  According to SFGate.com, a three-year-old girl died last Saturday following a dental procedure at a medical office in San Ramon.  Emergency responders were called to the office around 10 AM on Saturday when someone reported that the child had stopped breathing following treatment.  The girl was taken to San Ramon Regional Medical Center where doctors pronounced her dead.  It is not known whether the child was under anesthesia nor do officials know the nature of the dental procedure performed that morning.  Medical and fire personnel declined to release details or comment on the case citing patient privacy laws.

The Basics of Medical Malpractice Law in California

It is too soon to know whether a malpractice claim is appropriate in the recent San Ramon tragedy.  However, medical malpractice is a very real danger that can leave a patient facing life-long complications or can result in a loss of life.

In general, medical malpractice actions in California are based on a negligence principle.  This means, as laid forth in Civil Jury Instruction 400, a plaintiff must show: 1) The defendant was medically negligent; 2) The plaintiff suffered harm; and 3) The doctor2defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor responsible for causing the harm.  When the defendant is a non-specialized doctor, dentist, or surgeon, negligence is defined in Instruction 501 as the failure “to use the level of skill, knowledge, and care in diagnosis and treatment that other reasonably careful [insert type of medical practitioners] would use in the same or similar circumstances. This level of skill, knowledge, and care is sometimes referred to as ‘the standard of care.’”  Specialized doctors are held to a standard of care that compares them to other specialists (Instruction 502) and nurses to a standard that compares them to other nurses of the same type (Instruction 503).  Expert testimony is essential in establishing the relevant standard of care.

It is important to note that there are a number of complex requirements for filing and proving a medical malpractice claim.  For example, a plaintiff must give a medical provider 90 days’ notice before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.  Potential plaintiffs are well-advised to consult an experienced medical malpractice lawyer for assistance.  In most cases, a plaintiff must file suit within three years of the date of injury or within one year from the time the plaintiff discovered or should discovered the injury.  There is a statutory limit on non-economic damages (e.g., compensation for pain and suffering) in medical malpractice actions.  However, there is not a cap on economic damages such as compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and future care.

Alternative Claims to Medical Malpractice

While the majority of claims involving medical procedures will fall under medical malpractice law, there are some cases in which another claim might be appropriate.  This could include a standard wrongful death claim, an ordinary negligence, or another personal injury claim.  Additionally, there is a special claim for medical battery that applies when a doctor interferes with a patient’s right to direct his/her own treatment.  A medical battery claim may be appropriate when a patient does not give informed consent for a procedure.

A Law Firm for Medical Malpractice in Northern California

If you believe that you or someone you love was harmed because of a medical error or other form of medical malpractice in Northern California, please call our law firm.  A consultation with our medical malpractice lawyer in Oakland, San Francisco, or Santa Rosa is always free.  Cases are typically handled on a contingency fee basis so you only pay if you recover money.

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(Image by Alex E. Proimos)