When someone takes a human life, intentionally or not, they usually face criminal charges. This isn't always true when a patient dies due to medical negligence. In most cases, doctors only face civil liability for medical malpractice, even if the death was preventable.
In a field where any failure in treatment or diagnosis can lead to harm, should doctors face criminal charges? In some extreme cases, doctors are held criminally liable. But most cases never reach the level of criminal consequences.
What's the Difference Between Civil Court and Criminal Court?
Cases tried in civil courts and criminal courts have different standards of evidence and result in different consequences:
- Civil Court: In civil cases, the plaintiff is typically someone who claims to have been harmed by the respondent. The plaintiff must show with a preponderance of the evidence that the respondent caused that harm. If the case is successful, they will recover compensation for the injuries they suffered.
- Criminal Court: In criminal cases, the state prosecutes a defendant for a violation of the law. The prosecution must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the defendant faces jail time, fines, or other consequences, depending on the severity of the crime.
Both courts are independent of each other. Success in one does not ensure success in the other for the same act.
Is Medical Malpractice Civil or Criminal?
In nearly all circumstances, medical malpractice results in a civil claim but not a criminal case. Can medical malpractice be criminal? Yes, but to determine that a medical malpractice case warrants a criminal charge, the doctor's negligence must be proven.
However, negligence alone does not make a doctor guilty of a criminal offense. Medical malpractice becomes a criminal act when the doctor has intentionally caused harm, acted with gross negligence, or acted recklessly. Otherwise, it is likely just civil medical malpractice.
It is unusual for malpractice to be considered manslaughter because doctors typically try to protect the health of their patients. And, unfortunately, many patients die even when they receive excellent treatment.
When Is Malpractice a Crime?
Medical malpractice crosses the line from a civil to a criminal offense when the medical provider's actions are grossly inappropriate. Some examples of criminal medical malpractice include:
- Healthcare Fraud: Most doctors make decisions based on the best interests of their patients. Sadly, some make healthcare decisions based on what will make them the most money. When a doctor prescribes a drug to get a kickback from the manufacturer, charges for treatments they didn't provide, or otherwise tries to profit from negligence, they are engaging in healthcare fraud.
- Intentional Acts: It is rare for a doctor to intentionally harm a patient, but it's not unheard of. The most common intentional injury is some variation of assisted suicide.
- Unlicensed Medicine: Becoming a doctor is hard. Doctors require almost a decade of training to get licensed. A license proves they have the training necessary to safely provide care. Unfortunately, some patients are treated by doctors, nurses, or assistants who are not licensed to perform the procedure they are attempting.
- Gross Negligence: One of the most common examples of gross negligence is when medical professionals perform surgery or provide other medical care while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If a medical practitioner fails to provide care that is obviously required to save the life of a patient, they are criminally negligent.
Criminal medical malpractice typically requires that the provider intends to commit a crime, even if they don't intend to harm the patient.
Is Medical Negligence a Criminal Offense?
Proving criminal negligence requires proving that a healthcare provider had the intent to do wrong. Although they might not have intended to cause an injury, they must have intentionally performed a criminal act that resulted in harm to the victim.
When a doctor or hospital performs unnecessary medical procedures on a patient just to charge higher medical bills, they have engaged in criminal medical negligence. The difference between negligence and malpractice is whether it was intentional. If a prosecutor can prove that this was an intentional act, the state can file criminal charges against the responsible party in a medical malpractice case.
Criminal charges can be difficult to prosecute because a case of bad judgment looks similar to an intentional act of malice. Typically, a medical professional will receive the benefit of the doubt, even when facing criminal charges.
Should Medical Errors Be Considered Criminal Offenses?
Most medical errors should not be considered criminal offenses, even when a doctor's mistake results in the injury or death of a patient. Should medical errors be criminalized across the board, medical professionals will become more risk-averse, and they will likely provide less effective treatment for the patients who need help most.
Criminalizing unintentional medical errors doesn't help the victims of medical malpractice cases, either. Even if a medical practitioner or hospital is found guilty in a criminal case, the victim of medical malpractice won't receive compensation for medical bills, lost wages, or other harm caused by negligent actions.
Victims still need to make a civil claim against the offender to collect money. And a respondent in prison may not have the resources to provide adequate compensation.
Typically, only the most egregious acts of recklessness should result in a criminal case. Both victims and circumstances need to be carefully considered in every medical malpractice case. Often, everyone will be better served if the victim files a personal injury claim against the medical provider responsible for the harm.
Can a Doctor Go to Jail for Malpractice?
A doctor can be sentenced to jail for malpractice only if they are found guilty in a medical malpractice case in criminal court. If a jury finds a medical provider responsible for medical malpractice in a civil trial, the only penalty that jury can assign is financial restitution to the victim of medical malpractice.
Even if a court determines that the actions of a doctor were criminal, it is unlikely that they will spend much or any time in jail. Typically, criminal medical malpractice cases result in lesser penalties than assault, manslaughter, or murder cases.
Furthermore, prosecutors are more likely to be sympathetic to doctors and offer them reduced charges or reduced sentences. Except in the most egregious cases, doctors are likely to face only probation or community service and may not even lose their licenses.
What to Do If You Suspect Medical Malpractice?
If you suspect that you are a victim of medical malpractice, you should contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney immediately. Your attorney will file a civil medical malpractice case for you. You should help them with your civil case by:
- Collecting Evidence: Get a copy of your medical records and provide it to your lawyer immediately. You should also keep a journal that documents any potential acts of negligence and the progress of your health. If your health deteriorates or your healthcare provider doesn't strictly follow hospital policies, you can help your personal injury case by keeping precise records.
- Avoid Talking to Former Doctors: Medical malpractice cases often rely on identifying negligence. If you give the target of the case any warning that you suspect medical malpractice, they might hide evidence of the malpractice.
- Only Speak to Your Lawyer About Your Case: As tempting as it can be to share your story with friends and family, you shouldn't speak about your personal injury case with anyone until it is finished. And definitely stay away from social media.
- Don't Stop Getting Medical Care: While you shouldn't stay with a negligent healthcare provider, you shouldn't let your health suffer, either. Find a provider you trust and be diligent about following their instructions.
Speak to your attorney if you have any questions.
How Can an Attorney Help Me with My Medical Malpractice Case?
Civil cases are won and lost on evidence. Your attorney will uncover evidence that supports four elements that need to be demonstrated in court to win your trial. These four elements of a medical malpractice case are:
- Duty of Care: Despite the oaths they take, doctors don't have a duty of care to everyone they meet. To prove a healthcare practitioner had a duty of care to you, your attorney needs to show that you were a patient at the time of the alleged medical malpractice.
- Breach of Duty: The next step is to prove that the provider failed to perform that duty.
- Causation: To determine causation, your attorney will show that the actions or inactions of your healthcare provider were the direct cause of any harm you suffered.
- Damages: Finally, your attorney needs to show the medical malpractice resulted in financial damage. This is usually reflected in lost wages, medical costs, and other expenses resulting from medical malpractice.
If your attorney can prove all these points, you should win your civil claim.
Contact Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm Today!
If you have suffered a serious problem after surgery, a permanent disability after medical treatment, or some other indication of medical malpractice, you should consult with a personal injury attorney immediately.
The attorneys at the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm have decades of experience handling medical malpractice civil cases and will quickly determine whether your experience qualifies. Call us at (212) 869-3500 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation about your medical malpractice claim.