What Does it Mean When Doctors “Breach Duty of Care?”
Medical malpractice claims in New York almost always involve a concept known as, “breach of duty of care.” It is the foundation for virtually all personal injury claims involving medical negligence. Identifying a breach of the duty of care is important in determining if there are grounds for a negligence lawsuit after suffering an injury.
What is Duty of Care?
There are two parts to the issue: the breach and the duty. Duties of care reflect legal obligations. The specific duties of care depend on the circumstances surrounding both parties. Daycares and schools owe duties of care to keep children safe in their surroundings. Doctors owe strict duties of care to patients based on professional medical standards.
In a medical malpractice claim, establishing a medical professional’s breach of duty requires proving:
- The doctor owed a legal duty to the patient
- What the appropriate level of care was under the circumstances
Proving the Existence of a Doctor-Patient Relationship
In order to prove that a doctor owed a legal duty of care to a patient, the existence of a doctor-patient relationship at the time of malpractice must be evident. This relationship is usually voluntary and entered into by agreement. Documents and testimonies that can be used as evidence to support a doctor-patient relationship should show:
- The patient elected to be treated by this particular doctor
- The patient agreed to and was provided examinations for the purpose of treatment for a certain condition or health issue
- Treatment by the doctor was ongoing at the time of the malpractice
Maintaining copies of medical records that provide proof of a completed course of treatment is essential as evidence for the injured patient. A doctor may be able to claim that the doctor-patient relationship ended before the date of malpractice if there is no evidence otherwise.
It’s important to understand that outside a hospital or doctor’s surgery, a doctor would not typically owe a duty of care if he did not attempt to help. This means doctors are not legally obligated to act as “good Samaritans.” However, once a doctor announces his or herself and starts to act as a doctor, a duty of care has been taken towards that patient. Under this circumstance the doctor can be potentially liable for negligence.
The Medical Standard of Care
Doctors owe a certain level of skill, expertise and care that can ultimately be summed up as “do no harm.” In court, these standards are determined by assessing the degree of skill, care and diligence expected by a reasonably competent physician under the same or similar circumstances.
- The area of medicine in which the doctor practices
- The customary or accepted practices of other doctors in the area
- The level of equipment and facilities available at the time and in the local area
As individuals responsible for people’s lives and handling life or death choices, doctors are held to especially high standards. Each doctor pledges to live up to these standards as they enter their specific area of the profession and colleague group. This means a doctor is not expected to adequately diagnose and treat serious health conditions irrelevant to their specialized field of medicine.
The degree of skill and expertise under the circumstances are proven in court with expert testimonies from other doctors who share similar skill, training, certification, and experience as the allegedly negligent doctor. If a doctor does not perform as expected of someone in his or her field, the doctor may be held liable for any harm that results from not adhering to the standards.
A Doctor’s Duty to Warn and Advise
Doctors have the duty to communicate and relay adequate information to their patients. This information includes:
- Disclosing a diagnosis or providing health warnings to patients in an appropriate time frame
- Informed Consent: Informing the patient of the reasonable risks of procedures or the course of treatment
- Informing patients of any dangers or potential side effects associated with drugs prescribed to them
- Disclosing information about possible consequences of treatment that could potentially harm third parties (ie. prescribing medication that causes drowsiness and informing the patient due to the risk of injuring other people while driving or operating heavy machinery)
What Is a Breach?
Breaching the duty of care can also be called “negligence.” If a doctor negligently—as in carelessly, or irresponsibly—breached his or her duties of care to a patient and caused injury, the doctor can be responsible for damages.
A breach of duty can be accidental or purposeful, with malicious and criminal intent. The following are examples of types of legal claims regarding medical negligence and breach of duty:
- Prescribing a patient incorrect medication
- Failing to review a patient’s current medications
- Writing a prescription for the incorrect dose of medication
- Administering incorrect drugs
- Failing to analyze or diagnose a health condition accurately
- Failing to diagnose a health condition entirely
- Ignoring or misreading laboratory results
- Failure to order adequate tests
- Prematurely discharging a patient from care
- Failing to warn a patient of known risks of a surgery, procedure or treatment
- Making a severe mistake during surgery, such as performing surgery on the wrong part of the patient’s body or carelessly leaving foreign objects/surgical tools inside the body
A poor medical result does not mean that the doctor or medical provider breached a duty of care and committed malpractice. The doctor or medical provider must have acted in an irresponsible manner that breached the duty of care and led to injury for the patient.
An expert medical malpractice attorney can help patients determine whether or not actions taken by medical professionals breached the duty of care owed to them.
Proving Medical Negligence Caused Harm
After establishing the duty of care, and breach of duty of care, the next element of a medical malpractice case is proving the negligence caused harm. It can be difficult to do so, as the negligence and professional actions must be distinct from the illness or injury the patient already had.
For instance, imagine a patient passes away while diagnosed with cancer and the family believes that the medical team was negligent in some way. It would be complicated to determine whether it was the cancer or negligence that led to the death. The burden of proof lies with the plaintiff to prove every element in the malpractice claim.
There needs to be a clear line connecting the injury with the medical care provided.
For example, the standard of care for a broken arm is to take an x-ray and set the arm correctly before placing it in a cast to heal. A breach of duty would be if a doctor improperly set the arm or not cast it at all, resulting in the patient’s arm healing incorrectly with loss of partial or full use. This would leave the patient suffering in pain and requiring surgeries to repair the damage. This is a direct connection between injury and the provided medical care.
Some other types of injuries typically caused by a breach of duty of medical care include:
- Cardiac injuries (due to failure to monitor a patient or detect prior conditions)
- Neurological injuries such as stroke or traumatic brain injury
- Anesthesia-related injuries from improper intubation/oxygenation
- Post-operative infections
- Over-radiation injuries for benign tumors
- Maternal deaths from birth
- Vision loss or blindness after NON-eye surgery
Proving an Injury Caused Losses
After proving that a breach of duty caused injury, the next step is to prove that the harm resulted in damages. There must be specific and significant damage caused to the patient. Damages caused by medical negligence include:
- Cost of hospitalization, procedures, and treatments
- Loss of wages from missed work
- Loss of future income and earning capacity
- Chronic pain
- Mental anguish, including loss of enjoyment of life from emotional distress
- Punitive damages: Additional compensation in the event that healthcare professionals purposely and maliciously harm a patient
- Wrongful death
When Do You Need a Malpractice Attorney?
Medical malpractice is a serious claim that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Before tackling this type of legal situation, it’s important to understand what it fully entails. With a malpractice case, it is important to seek the advice and guidance of a legal team with extensive experience with this type of lawsuit. Experts are experienced with reviewing details and discussing all the circumstances of the injuries.
There is a statute of limitations to file a medical malpractice claim in New York. Victims have two years and six months from the date of malpractice or from the end of continuous treatment from the alleged at-fault party to take legal action. Three exceptions are:
- In the case of a minor, the clock does not start until the individual reaches adulthood
- The Discovery Rule: The statute of limitations begins one year from the date of discovery of a foreign object left behind after surgery
- Lavern’s Law: Cancer patients’ statute of limitations begin from the time the patient discovers, or should have enough facts to reasonably discover a doctor’s failure to diagnose a malignant cancer or tumor
In any case, the first step to filing a lawsuit before the statute of limitation closes is to consult with an expert New York medical malpractice lawyer.
Contact New York Medical Malpractice Attorneys Today
The attorneys at Sobo & Sobo have over 50 years of experience helping victims across New York city and the Hudson Valley recover compensation for medical malpractice damages. Offices are conveniently located in Middletown, Newburgh, Spring Valley, Poughkeepsie, Monticello, the Bronx and Inwood, Manhattan.
If you or a loved one believe to have suffered from medical negligence, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Contact Sobo & Sobo for a free initial consultation, there are never any fees unless compensation is attained on your behalf.
Call today at 855-468-7626.