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What are the Elements of a Medical Malpractice Claim?

There are four basic elements to a medical malpractice case.  They must all be present to form the basis for a claim, and an attorney must prove them all to succeed in a medical malpractice case.  The four elements are duty, breach, causation, and damages.

Duty means that the health care professional owes an individual a duty to act reasonably and appropriately – that he or she was responsible for providing some type of care or treatment to a patient.  This requirement is usually met whenever there is a physician-patient relationship.  The duty is the duty to act within the “standard of care” (basically meaning reasonable and appropriate care).

Breach means that the health care professional has breached the duty he or she owes to the patient – that they have deviated from or fallen below the standard of care.  Just as duty means that a doctor was responsible for providing reasonable care and treatment, breach means that he or she failed to do so.

Causation means that the health care professional’s breach of the standard of care caused or contributed to causing some harm to the patient.  A simple example would be a patient that goes to a hospital with a broken leg,  A first doctor misses the diagnosis and tells the patient to go home.  Five minutes later, a second doctor correctly diagnoses the patient and treats the broken leg.  The first doctor misdiagnosed the patient, but it didn’t cause or contribute to causing any harm because the second doctor provided treatment within minutes.

Damages just means that the patient sustained harm because of the doctor’s mistake.  Think of malpractice as the medical equivalent of not paying attention and running a red light.  If someone runs a red light and doesn’t hit someone, they made a mistake but it didn’t hurt anyone.  Similarly, if a doctor makes a medical error but causes no harm to the patient, there are no damages.