Why Is Medical Malpractice Handled in Civil Court?

Why Is Medical Malpractice Handled in Civil Court? Anyone who is injured due to medical malpractice has the right to file a civil medical malpractice claim against negligent hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare providers. The families of anyone who dies due to medical malpractice have the right to file wrongful death claims against the negligent defendants. Wrongful death claims are also civil claims.

There are some cases where the conduct of the healthcare providers is so egregious, so wrong, that the government may file criminal charges. Generally, your civil claim does not depend on the outcome of any criminal cases – except that if a doctor or other healthcare provider is found criminally liable, then victims may be able to use the criminal conviction to their advantage.

Some convictions are negligence per se, which means the criminal conviction means the defendant should be held liable in your civil claim. Other convictions may not directly determine civil liability, but the evidence used to convict the healthcare provider may be used in the civil claim.

The aim of a civil case is to compensate the victim. The aim of a criminal case is generally to punish the negligent healthcare provider.

Why medical malpractice cases are filed in civil court

Some of the reasons why medical malpractice is handled in civil court and not criminal court include:

  • The standard of care. Medical malpractice in civil cases is usually due to the failure of a doctor, hospital, nurse, or other healthcare provider to follow the same standard of care as other providers who provide the same type of care. For example, surgeons are judged in civil cases by the standard of care of other surgeons. The surgeon is generally liable for medical malpractice if:
    • There is a patient-surgeon relationship.
    • The surgeon breached his/her duty of competent care.
    • The breach caused the patient to suffer injuries or die.

This standard of care is different in criminal cases. Generally, healthcare providers must break some written law in order to be found guilty in a criminal case.

  • The burden of proof. In a civil case, our Memphis and Jackson personal injury lawyers must show that the healthcare provider is liable by a preponderance of the evidence. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the healthcare provider is liable beyond a reasonable doubt. The criminal burden is much higher to prove, which is why civil cases can be easier to win or settle.
  • The need to compensate the victim. Criminal cases generally do not compensate the victim. In most criminal cases, the prosecution aims to obtain a conviction in order to punish the wrongdoer, the healthcare provider. Punishment includes imprisonment, fines, and having a criminal record. In some criminal cases, the government might seek restitution for any medical bills.

In medical malpractice cases, the government’s focus is not on the injured patient. The government often does not know what medical care the patient requires and the cost of that medical care. Even if the government requires that the defendant pay restitution for the patient’s healthcare costs; restitution does not include pain and suffering, lost income, and other damage.

Additionally, if a defendant is found criminally liable, then the defendant is normally not in a position to pay any damages until he/she is released from prison. The insurance carrier normally is not required to pay damages in a criminal case, just in a civil case.

In a civil case, once the liability of the healthcare provider is established, a determination can be made of all the victim’s damages. Personal injury damages generally include:

  • The cost of any corrective surgery.
  • The pain and suffering of the victim until the corrective surgery can be completed.
  • The pain and suffering of the victim if corrective surgery is not possible because of the medical malpractice.
  • The income the victim loses because he/she cannot work due to the medical malpractice.
  • Any loss of function of a body part due to the medical malpractice.

An illustrative medical malpractice case in Tennessee

In a recent Tennessee case, a nurse was charged criminally for administering the wrong drug to a patient which left the 75-year-old patient brain dead. The nurse was found guilty of “criminal medical malpractice.” She was placed on a diversion program (which meant she would not serve a prison sentence) because she had no prior record, there was no malice, and she cooperated with the prosecution.

Nurses and other healthcare professionals have raised concerns that the nurse should not have been charged with a crime. These concerns include:

  • The mistake was arguably due to a systematic error and not to individual error.
  • A criminal conviction is not likely to deter future mistakes due to the fault of the healthcare system.
  • The criminal conviction may have a chilling effect on other healthcare professionals. Nurses, for example, may not want to continue as nurses if they have to worry that a mistake may mean a criminal record. Healthcare providers expect to be held civilly liable for mistakes. That’s one reason they have medical malpractice insurance. Mistakes shouldn’t happen but they are usually understandable. Being held criminally liable for mistakes raises the stakes for nurses – they may choose to work in a different job.

At Bailey & Greer, PLLC, our Memphis medical malpractice lawyers are seasoned personal injury lawyers. We work with a network of doctors and other healthcare professionals who can analyze whether your doctor failed to comply with competent medical standards. We demand compensation for all your damages. When a loved one dies due to a missed diagnosis, a delayed diagnosis, surgical errors, or other reasons; we file wrongful death claims on behalf of the spouse, children, and parents.

To discuss your right to hold physicians and other healthcare professionals liable for medical malpractice, call us at 901-475-7434 or complete our contact form to schedule a free consultation at our office in Memphis or Jackson. We handle medical malpractice cases on a contingency fee basis.