Thomas Reuters News & Insight reported this week on new trends related to how doctors are being held accountable for egregious cases of medical malpractice. Specifically, a growing number of criminal prosecutions have recently been advanced which seek to hold these individuals criminally liable for their behavior when it reaches a certain level of particularly damaging professional misconduct.
As blog readers are aware, there are generally two types of cases that come before courts: civil and criminal. Each Illinois medical malpractice attorney at our firm works on civil lawsuits which are filed by victims themselves (or their family members) and seeks to provide compensation and redress to the victim for the harm caused. Civil cases are begun only when the victim visits a medical malpractice lawyer and asks for help-no government body will start the process on its own.
Civil lawsuits continue to be the main way that negligent medical professionals are held accountable for their conduct. However, over the years a growing number of criminal prosecutions have also been filed against these physicians for the actions. One of the most high-profile examples of this involves the upcoming trial of Michael Jackson’s former physician. Jackson’s family has filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit, alleging that the doctor’s reckless administration of medication led to the death. However, on top of that, state prosecutors also filed criminal charges against the man for gross negligence that led to the death.
Unlike civil cases, a criminal prosecution is begun by a specific public body, usually led by a state’s attorney, which decides whether or not an individual has broken a specific law and whether sufficient evidence exists to show the breach such that jury could find guilt. Also, the legal standards used to evaluate guilt or liability is much different in civil and criminal cases. The standard of proof required is much higher in criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt) as compared to civil cases (preponderance of the evidence). The preponderance standard is often best explained by considering that a jury must simply find it “more likely than not” that the medical professionals breached the standard of care. Conversely, when proving something beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutors must not only show that it is more likely that the crime was committed, but they must affirmatively prove away each reasonable doubt that might be brought up about the defendant’s actual guilt.
More and more prosecutors have ultimately been pursuing criminal cases against the most negligent doctors over the last few decades. According to recent research, there were roughly only 15 appellate decisions involving these cases in the from the nearly 200 year period between 1809 and 1981. However, there was roughly the same amount in the next twenty years alone, up to 2001. In the last ten years there have actually been 37 reported appellate cases on the matter-indicating a clear upward trend. Of course, it is important to remember that these prosecutions still constitute only a very small minority of negligence cases. It most cases doctors do not deserve any criminal sanctions for their mistakes, but instead need only provide compensation to their victims for the mistakes made. That is why civil medical malpractice lawsuits will also be the ideal way for accountability to be had in these situations.
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