When a doctor fails to provide a patient with the proper standard of care — say, by misdiagnosing or failing to diagnose a serious medical condition — and causes injury to that patient, the patient has a right to seek compensation for their damages by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit. However, what happens when a misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose cannot be proven to have caused injury? Can the doctor still be held liable for their mistake?
Causation in Medical Malpractice Cases
In order to prevail in a medical malpractice lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that:
- There was a doctor-patient relationship;
- The doctor made an error in diagnosis or treatment;
- This error caused the patient’s injuries; and
- The patient suffered damages as a result of these injuries.
It’s not enough to show that the doctor made an error; it has to be proven that the error caused the patient’s injuries — that the patient would not have been injured “but for” the doctor’s negligent act, or that the injuries were a foreseeable result of the doctor’s negligence. This can be a challenge in cases in which the injuries are those that might be ordinarily expected as a result of the patient’s original disease or condition.
For example, a patient who has late-stage terminal cancer (and doesn’t know it) visits a doctor about his pain. The doctor fails to diagnose the condition as terminal cancer. In his opinion, the pain is nothing more than a common, benign condition — maybe indigestion or muscle strain. The patient dies a few weeks later from cancer.
In such a case, it would be difficult to claim damages for medical malpractice. The doctor’s error, though negligent, didn’t cause the patient’s cancer, and any treatment they could have recommended would likely have been ineffective.
Another example: A patient is experiencing symptoms of Cauda Equina Syndrome but waits five days before going to an emergency room. The ER doctor fails to recognize the symptoms of CES and an accurate diagnosis is delayed. The patient suffers permanent injuries.
However, Cauda Equina Syndrome is an emergency medical condition that must be accurately diagnosed and treated very quickly from the onset of symptoms to have a good chance of recovery. Because the patient waited five days before seeking medical care, it would be difficult to prove the doctor’s delayed diagnosis was the cause of the patient’s permanent injuries.
Doctors Aren’t the Only Ones Who Make Errors
While a doctor’s misdiagnosis may not be responsible for a patient’s injury, there may be other parties who were. To prove causation in a medical malpractice case, it’s necessary to investigate all parties that may have been responsible for the patient’s injuries, not just the doctor.
In the case of terminal cancer, a technician could have messed up a blood test that would have revealed the cancer months before the doctor’s examination. Maybe the patient was a resident at a nursing home where the staff did not seek treatment even after the patient repeatedly complained of pain. Or, the cancer may have been caused by exposure to a dangerous substance, such as asbestos, many years before, in which case it might be possible to recover damages through a product liability suit.
How Do You Establish Causation in a Medical Malpractice Case?
A personal injury attorney with extensive experience in medical malpractice litigation should always be consulted when there is evidence to suggest a medical error may have been responsible for a patient’s injuries or death.
As a leading Fort Lauderdale medical malpractice attorney who handles cases nationwide, Lisa Levine possesses the experience, skills and resources required to successfully pursue a medical malpractice case, including establishing proof of causation. She is dedicated to holding the defendants and their insurance companies responsible for a client’s injuries.
If you believe you would not have been injured or or a loved one may not have died but for the negligent acts of a doctor, nurse, medical technician or staff, contact the law offices of Lisa Levine to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case.