Malpractice liability for untimely death of terminal patient?

In any medical malpractice case, there are four general elements that must be proven. These are: duty; breach; causation; and harm. While public discussion of medical malpractice tends to focus a lot on the elements of duty and breach, causation is a very important aspect of any medical malpractice case.

Proving that a physician breached a recognized standard of care and that the patient suffered harm is not enough in medical malpractice litigation. It must also be proven that there is a sufficient connection between the physician’s breach and the harm suffered by the patient. This sufficient connection is otherwise known as “proximate cause.”

The issue of causation is a central one in a medical malpractice case currently up on appeal before the Missouri Supreme Court. In that case, a physician is being sued for malpractice on the allegation that the physician’s negligence caused a terminal patient to die sooner than he otherwise would have. In this case, the deceased patient had an aggressive form of brain cancer that the patient’s doctor failed to detect.

The deceased man’s family argues that he would have lived a number of months longer if the doctor had properly detected the cancer, and that his failure to do so therefore amounted to an acceleration of death, even though that death was inevitable. On the defendant side, the argument is that the physician’s failure to detect cancer did not cause the man’s death, since he would have died anyway. The defendant says the proper test in this case is the “but for” test. In other words, the physician argues that the proper question is whether the patient would have died, but for the physician’s negligence.

In our next post, we’ll continue looking at this issue and the importance of building a strong medical malpractice case around the issue of causation.

Source: Hannibal Courier-Post, “Mo. Supreme Court to hear Hannibal wrongful death case,” Eric Dundon, Oct. 20, 2015.

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