Effective Defenses to Medical Malpractice Claims

February 29, 2024 | - News & Insights

One of the most significant risks doctors and other healthcare professionals face in their careers is medical malpractice suits. Even if a plaintiff is unsuccessful in proving medical malpractice, the mere fact that a doctor has been the subject of a medical malpractice suit can cause serious reputational damage. It is therefore imperative for doctors and their employers to mount vigorous defenses to these kinds of claims to preserve their ability to continue to practice in their chosen fields. Doctors and other healthcare professionals who are facing malpractice claims should consider speaking to a North Carolina personal injury attorney to discuss their options for defense. 

Elements of a Medical Malpractice Claim 

Medical malpractice claims proceed according to a theory of negligence, which requires the plaintiff to prove four elements: 

  1. A duty of care owed to the patient by the doctor
  2. A breach of that duty of care
  3. A causal link between the breach of duty and the patient’s injuries
  4. Damages resulting from the breach 

To determine what duty the defendant owes to the plaintiff in medical malpractice cases, courts look to the standard of care in the doctor’s field of practice. Under North Carolina law, a standard of care is care that is “in accordance with the standards of practice among members of the same health care profession with similar training and experience situated in the same or similar communities under the same or similar circumstances.” In other words, a doctor breaches a standard of care when he or she fails to act as a similarly situated doctor would under similar circumstances. 

Common Defenses Used in Medical Malpractice Cases 

Medical malpractice is one of the more complex and difficult personal injury claims for plaintiffs to prove. Defendants in such cases also have a variety of defenses available to them, which are discussed in more detail below. Please speak to a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney for more information about any of the medical malpractice defenses covered herein.  

No Deviation From the Standard of Care 

Plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases often struggle to prove that the defendant’s conduct fell below the requisite standard of care. After all, just because a patient suffered an injury, adverse reaction, or other complication does not mean the doctor did anything wrong. Furthermore, establishing the requisite standard of care in any particular case is not an exact science. “Standards of care” are not set in stone and depend a great deal on the opinions of the doctors within the relevant field. For example, the plaintiff may present an expert witness to testify that she would have done Y when the defendant did X, while the defendant may present other expert witnesses to testify that they also would have done X. Because reasonable minds can differ regarding the propriety of a particular action, arguments that there was no deviation from the standard of care are among the most effective defenses to medical malpractice claims. 

Preexisting Condition or Comorbidity 

Another hurdle plaintiffs must overcome to prove medical malpractice is to show that their injuries were the result of the doctor’s breach of care rather than some other preexisting condition or comorbidity. According to a 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 518% of adults in the United States had at least one chronic condition, while 27.2% had multiple chronic conditions. The presence of such a condition can have several effects on a medical malpractice claim, including: 

  • Making it more difficult to prove the exact cause of the injury 
  • Making it more difficult to sort out which damages stem from the alleged malpractice and which stem from the chronic condition
  • Making it more difficult to prove future damages (e.g., the defendant can argue that decreased life expectancy is the result of the chronic condition rather than the alleged malpractice)

An experienced North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can assist doctors in wielding a preexisting condition defense most effectively. 

Patient Noncompliance 

Doctors and patients must work together in order for medical treatment to be successful. Even the best medical assistance in the world can be ineffective if the patient refuses to comply with his or her treatment plan. The patent noncompliance defense is similar to the preexisting condition defense in that it argues that something other than the doctor’s actions caused injury to the patient. 

Examples of patient noncompliance include: 

  • Failure to attend follow-up appointments
  • Failure to take medication as indicated 
  • Failure to complete physical therapy 
  • Failure to undergo subsequent monitoring or diagnostics 
  • Engaging in prohibited activities (e.g., lifting heavy objects after being advised not to)

Readers should note, however, that post-care guidance must be clearly explained to patients in order for doctors to take advantage of the patient noncompliance defense. 

Assumption of the Risk/Informed Consent 

The practice of medicine is complex and nearly always involves at least some level of risk. Doctors are, therefore, required in most instances to obtain informed consent from their patients before performing medical care. What constitutes “informed consent” is beyond the scope of this article, but obtaining informed consent can lay the groundwork for an effective defense in medical practice cases so long as the injury the plaintiff suffered was of the type of risk disclosed to the patient. For example, infections are a common complication that arises after many types of invasive surgeries. If the plaintiff consented to this risk before the procedure at issue, the defendant likely would be able to argue a strong informed consent defense. The informed consent defense is similar to the “assumption of the risk” defense in other personal injury cases. 

Beat Medical Malpractice Claims With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney

Medical malpractice claims are serious business and can have long-term implications for doctors’ ability to practice. If you have been accused of malpractice, you need to mount a strong defense to preserve your livelihood and reputation. For more information, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or feel free to use our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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