Medical malpractice, commonly called “medmal” for short, generally occurs when a negligent, careless or reckless act, mistake, error, or omission by a doctor or other medical professional causes damage or harm to a patient. It has been estimated that almost 98,000 people die in hospitals in the United States each year, and that medication errors injure approximately 1.3 million people per year. Medical malpractice errors or negligence typically occur in the diagnosis or treatment of a patient, and may include, but are not limited to:
>Failure to treat
>Delay in diagnosis
>Failure to diagnose
>Failure to rule out causes or conditions
>Failure to test
>Failure to obtain informed consent
>Wrong prescription of drugs
>Use of defective medical products
A patient’s right to recover compensation for medical malpractice is generally governed by common law as well as statutes and regulations which have been promulgated to protect patients who have been subjected to medical malpractice or medical negligence. Medical malpractice suits are usually complex, time-consuming, expensive to litigate, dependent upon expert testimony, and vigorously defended by health care providers and their insurers.
ELEMENTS OF A MEDICAL MALPRACTICE OR MEDICAL NEGLIGENCE CLAIM
The medical malpractice personal injury victim is commonly referenced as a “plaintiff” and the person or entity that caused the harm is commonly referenced as a “defendant.” The South Carolina Supreme Court has set forth the elements of negligence with regard to a medical malpractice personal injury claim that a plaintiff has to prove as follows:
>A physician-patient relationship exists
>The generally recognized and accepted practices and procedures that would be followed by average, competent practitioners in the defendants’ field of medicine under the same or similar circumstances >That the defendant departed from the recognized and generally accepted standards
>The defendant’s departure from such generally recognized practices and procedures was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s alleged injuries and damages
Thus, the medical malpractice lawyer and his client must present evidence to meet each of the foregoing elements at trial.
A physician commits malpractice by not exercising that degree of skill and learning that is ordinarily possessed and exercised by members of the profession in good standing acting in the same or similar circumstances. Durham v. Vinson, 360 S.C. 639 (2004). A plaintiff and his attorney must proffer expert testimony to prove both the required standard of care and the defendant’s failure to conform to that standard, unless the subject matter lies within the ambit of common knowledge so that no special learning is required to evaluate the conduct of the defendants.
INFORMED CONSENT CLAIM
A physician’s failure to obtain a patient’s “informed consent” with regard to a procedure or treatment is a form of medical malpractice. The term “informed consent” means that a physician must tell a patient all of the potential benefits, risks, and alternatives involved in any surgical procedure, diagnostic procedure, medical procedure, therapeutic procedure, or other course of treatment, and must obtain the patient’s written consent to proceed. Under Informed consent law, a physician who performs a diagnostic, therapeutic, or surgical procedure has a duty to disclose to a patient of sound mind, in the absence of an emergency that warrants immediate medical treatment, (1) the diagnosis, (2) the general nature of the contemplated procedure, (3) the material risks involved in the procedure, (4) the probability of success associated with the procedure, (5) the prognosis if the procedure is not out, and (6) the existence of any alternatives to the procedure. Thus, the plaintiff and his lawyer must present evidence of the physician’s breach of the foregoing elements of an informed consent claim in order to prevail at trial.
BREACH OF CONTRACT OR WARRANTY CLAIM
While most health care providers will not guarantee or warrant a particular outcome, there are times when they do, and a failure to successfully provide the outcome may give rise to a breach of contract or breach of warranty claim. These type cases usually involve plastic surgery wherein the patient is told that his or her post-surgery physical appearance will be the same as demonstrated on a computerized enhancement of the patient’s photograph. Thus, much like a business breach of contract claim, the plaintiff and his lawyer must present evidence of the physician’s breach of the stated warranty or guarantee by the preponderance of evidence in order to prevail at trial.
COMPENSATION IN MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CASES
In a medical malpractice personal injury lawsuit, a victim seeks compensation for the injury or injuries he or she has suffered. Compensation can include past and future medical expenses, disability or deformity, loss of income, emotional and mental anguish, loss of a spouse’s comfort and society, past and future pain and suffering, and an amount which would be necessary to make the person whole as respects a permanent personal injury. McNeil v. United States, 519 F.Supp. 283 (D.S.C. 1981). In cases where the defendant acted recklessly, maliciously or willfully, punitive damages may also be awarded. Punitive damages in medical malpractice lawsuits are intended to punish the responsible party and deter others from committing the same acts. Gamble v. Stevenson, 305 S.C. 104, 406 S.E.2d 350 (1991). If a wrongful death results from the medical malpractice, the decedent’s beneficiaries are entitled to compensation.
CAPS ON MEDICAL MALPRACTICE DAMAGES
For medical malpractice cases arising on or after July 1, 2005, which placed caps on non-economic damages a patient could recover from a liable defendant health care provider. S.C. Code § 15-32-220(a) limits the civil liability for non-economic damages of the health care provider to an amount not to exceed $350,000 for each claimant regardless of the number of separate causes of action on which the claim is based. S.C. Code § 15-32-220(a) provides an exception to the foregoing cap where the health care provider is proven to be grossly negligent, willful, wanton or reckless and that conduct was the proximate cause of the claimant’s non-economic damages. S.C. Code 15-32-220(b) provides that the $350,000 cap is limited to each claimant. S.C. Code 15-32-220(c) allows a claimant to stack his claim, and provides that up to three health care providers may be subject to the $350,000 cap per claimant, for a total of $1,050,000 per claimant.
The non-economic damage cap of $350,000 per medical entity or practice or person does not apply to economic damages and does not apply to punitive damages. Effective for medical malpractice cases arising on or after July 1, 2005, S.C. Code 15-32-230 further limits liability with regard to emergency obstetrical or emergency department situations. This section eliminates liability on behalf of any person providing emergency care or emergency obstetrical care to a person in immediate threat of death or an immediate threat of serious bodily injury while in an emergency room, obstetrical or surgical suite, unless the health care provider is proven to be grossly negligent. Other caps or limitations may be applicable to a medical malpractice case as well.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
The plaintiff’s attorney must timely bring a medical malpractice suit within the required timeframes. There are time limits on bringing a personal injury lawsuit in the state of South Carolina known as statutes of limitations. See S.C. Code 15-3-530(5); 15-3-535. While a medical malpractice personal injury suit is generally subject to a three year statute of limitations, there may be exceptions depending on the circumstances, such as a medical malpractice case where the negligent conduct may be covered by a concept known as the “discovery rule.” See S.C. Code 15-3-545; Wilson v. Shannon, 299 S.C. 512, 386 S.E.2d 257 (Ct. App. 1989).
The statutes of limitations are different for negligence suits against a South Carolina state government agency pursuant to the South Carolina Tort Claims Act (“TCA”) and the federal government pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). Under the TCA, a suit must generally be filed within two years, unless a verified claim is filed within a year of the injury, then the statute of limitations is three years. S.C. Code § 15-78-110. Under the FTCA, an administrative tort claim must generally be presented to the subject federal agency within two years. Once a timely administrative tort claim has been filed, there is no statute of limitations on bringing a suit unless the federal agency denies the claim, in which case a suit must be brought in federal court within six months after the denial. 28 U.S.C. 1346(b), 1402, 2401, 2675.
NECESSITY OF AN EXPERT
South Carolina Code 15-79-125 requires, on medical malpractice cases arising on or after July 1, 2005, that before a medical malpractice suit can be filed, a plaintiff has to simultaneously file both a notice of intent to file suit and an affidavit of an expert witness subject to the affidavit requirements established in 15-36-100 in a county in which venue would be proper for filing or initiating the action. Statutory mediation of any such medical malpractice case is required as well, and, there are time limits for filing suit should the attempted mediation fail. As noted above, an expert’s testimony is necessary at trial to prove a breach of the standard of care and proximate cause of the injury, and the medical malpractice lawyer should retain a medical expert early on to assess the case and to be prepared to testify at trial.