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Defenses to Medical Malpractice

The doctors we trust shouldn’t cause us harm, or make existing injuries or illnesses worse. And, if they do, we would like to hold them accountable for the damage they have done. At the same time, good doctors shouldn’t be punished for harm they didn’t cause. While these ideas sound simple enough, in actual practice it is more complex. There are several defenses available to medical professionals accused of malpractice, and this article is a brief introduction to a few medical malpractice defenses.

Standard Negligence Defenses

Medical malpractice is a form of negligence, therefore many of the defenses allowed against general negligence claims are also viable against malpractice claims. For example, a doctor may argue that his care was in line with the standards upheld in the medical profession, or that the patient’s injuries weren’t the result of a medical error. While disproving an element of negligence is one of the most common defenses to medical malpractice, there are a number of other defenses that may apply as well.

Contributory Negligence

Oftentimes, medical professionals aren’t the only ones to blame for an injury. If a medical professional can show that the injury would not have occurred had it not been for a negligent act by the patient, he or she may have a valid defense against a malpractice claim. For example, if a patient mixed prescriptions against the doctor’s orders or failed to disclose key elements of his or her medical history, the doctor may be off the hook for any injuries that result.

Respectable Minority Principle

Sometimes medical professionals decide to pursue a new or more radical form of treatment in order to effectively treat a patient. While the decision may place the doctor outside of the medical mainstream, he or she could have a valid defense to a medical malpractice claim if a respectable minority of medical professionals supports the line of treatment. Of course, the doctor must first inform the patient about the risks involved. (Failing to adequately inform a patient about potential risks can lead to a lack of informed consent claim.)

Good Samaritan Laws

Many states have “Good Samaritan” laws, shielding individuals who come to the aid of those in medical distress. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are often specifically included in such laws. That means if a doctor aids someone in an emergency situation, he or she will be protected from civil liability should anything go wrong during the rescue. Generally, however, a medical professional who voluntarily aids someone owes that person the same duty of care and treatment as that of a reasonably competent physician under the same or similar circumstances.

Statute of Limitations

State laws place time limits on when an action can be brought for medical malpractice. Some states have adopted the “discovery rule,” which holds that the statute of limitations period doesn’t begin until an injury is actually discovered. If the medical professional can show that the patient discovered the injury at a certain point and that the statute of limitations has since run, the case may be dismissed.

Additional Resources

Medical malpractice can be an especially complex and confusing area of the law. If you think you have a medical malpractice claim, or just want to know more about your legal rights and responsibilities as a patient, you can consult with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. You can also find more introductory information on this topic in FindLaw’s medical malpractice section.

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