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What Is Causation in Medical Malpractice?

surgeons in an operating room

Causation is one of the four (4) main elements of a medical malpractice lawsuit and proving causation is necessary to winning your case. Proving causation means showing that your medical provider’s negligence caused your injury or loss. You must be able to show the injury or loss would not have happened if your provider met the standard of care, which can be difficult in most cases.

Some Cases Have Clearer Causation Than Others

For example, consider a delayed diagnosis for cancer. Of course you won’t be able to convince a jury that the doctor caused your cancer, so you will need to show how, exactly, the delayed diagnosis allowed the disease to advance. While a case like this is difficult, it is not impossible. Your attorney may have an expert explain the importance of early diagnosis and show what happened to your body while you waited for a diagnosis. For example, during the delay, the cancer may have grown. It may have spread, or metastasized, etc. In other cases, causation may be easier. In the case where the surgeon amputated the wrong leg, for instance, causation is clear – had the doctor not made a serious mistake, you would still have the leg in question!

Res Ipsa Loquitur

In cases of clear causation, you may be able to invoke a legal doctrine called “res ipsa loquitur,” or “the thing speaks for itself.” If you wake up after surgery with a retained foreign object, the presence of a surgical sponge in your abdominal cavity speaks louder to the fact of your surgeon’s negligence than any expert ever could. However, even in this case, showing that the retained sponge caused infection, perforation of other organs, etc. may be challenging.

How Sure Does the Jury/Fact Finder Need To Be?

Unlike the standard in criminal cases where the proof needs to be beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil cases, such as medical malpractice, the patient must prove causation by a preponderance of the evidence. This means you as the plaintiff must convince the jury/fact finder that there is a greater than 50% chance your damages were caused by the medical provider’s negligence, or failure to meet the required medical standard.

What Is Proximate Cause?

Causation does not always refer to actual cause or cause-in-fact (i.e., you would not have been injured but for your doctor’s negligence). Sometimes, proximate cause is enough to win a medical malpractice claim.

As in our earlier example, proving proximate cause may be important in a case involving cancer. Although your attorney cannot say you would not have gotten cancer if the doctor was not negligent, they can establish the link between delayed diagnosis and a more advanced, harder-to-treat disease.

If your injury was a foreseeable consequence of your health care provider’s action or inaction, you may be able to prove your claim with proximate cause.

To prove proximate cause, you will likely need an expert to help clarify the link between medical negligence and your injury.

What Else Do I Need Besides Causation?

In addition to proving causation, you must also establish the doctor-patient relationship you had with your provider or show that the provider had a duty of care towards you. You must show that the standard of care was breached, as well, which usually means proving that any reasonable doctor in a substantially similar situation would have acted differently.

Once you’ve proved all this and actual or proximate causation, you will need to quantify your injuries and losses to show how you can be compensated for the damages in question.

To return to our primary example one final time, if you have a more advanced form of cancer due to delayed diagnosis, you will need to show how the disease will affect your treatment, your prognosis, life expectancy and how it will impact you financially (like more time away from work because of the additional treatment required by the negligence/delay). Your damages may compensate you for heightened medical expenses, missed wages, and even funeral costs if the cancer is beyond treatment.

Why Should I File a Medical Malpractice Claim?

No amount of money will change what happened to you, but a successful medical malpractice claim can help you move forward and provide for your family – no matter what happens. The filing of medical malpractice claims also may hold the doctor, hospital, etc. accountable for errors and may cause them to look at policies and procedures, revise protocols and education. If you believe your doctor’s mistakes or negligence or nursing errors or other hospital problems caused a serious injury or loss, it is worth talking to an attorney.

At Brett H. Oppenheimer, PLLC, we will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case during a free consultation. We have been fighting for people like you since 1991, and we are ready to evaluate your claim.

Call Brett at (502) 242-8877 or contact our firm online to get started today.

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