Medical malpractice cases are some of the most specialized in the entire personal injury field. That is because the specific negligence in question is of a professional nature–not necessarily apparent to the general community member. Doctors spend years in post-graduate study understanding the specifics of their field, and so it is illogical to expect jurors to be able to understand what does or does not constitute proper care in any given situation.
Making matters even more complex is the fact that in instances of medical malpractice, patients are already sick with some injury or ailment. This adds confusion, because in virtually all cases the defense alleges that any adverse event–such as the patient’s death–was caused by the underlying ailment that brought them to the doctor originally–and not anything related the professional negligence.
All of this is why expert witnesses are so critical in these cases, explaining what happened in a particular situation, outlining the proper standards of care, and arguing whether the doctor’s conduct in any specific case did or did not meet those standards.
To help illustrate how experts witness work in med mal cases, it may be worthwhile to browse an example. The Expert Institute offers occasional real world case studies that briefly discuss a legal complication and share some comments made by an expert to shed light on the issue.
One of those case studies refers to a cancer patient who died from sepsis–an infection of the blood that can be fatal when not treated properly. More specifically as discussed by the Mayo Clinic, sepsis is the body’s response to a severe infections. The “shock” to the body can lead to organ failure and complications in all areas of the body.
In this case, the fifty two year old patient was diagnosed with “stage three” cervical cancer. Eventually she began having pain during bowel movements with blood in her stool. A doctor performed a colonoscopy and biopsy of a mass in the area. A month later she was back in the hospital with severe pain. That was ultimately caused by a perforated colon necessitating emergency surgery. Sadly, afterwards the patient developed an infection and died about two weeks later from sepsis original
In a subsequent legal case the issue revolved around the proper standard of care regarding surgery for patients with rectal cancer. In other words, the patient’s cancer affected what was reasonable in response to the rectal problems. The expert explained that “strong considerations should be given to the intent of the surgery, possible functional outcome, and preservation of anal continence and genitourinary functions.” He goes on to list what factors need to be prioritized by the doctor when determining whether to go ahead with surgery in these cases and the benefit of doing so.
In other words, a subsequent legal suit must involve weighing of the risks of adverse complications from the surgery with the potential to save various function in the patient. In a case, the expert-doctor would then apply this standard to the specifics of the patient’s case file and provide a final expert opinion regarding whether or not the actual doctor’s care violated those accepted standards.
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