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Can Medical Malpractice Also be Criminal?

Written by Berkowitz

stethoscope and gavel

When a physician’s negligent behavior causes you serious injury, that physician is subject to a medical malpractice claim. That physician may or may not lose their medical license and job. After all, when a physician’s negligence causes you serious harm or takes a patient’s life, you want to ensure that others are protected and the physician is held responsible.

Malpractice is currently the third leading cause of death in the United States. And while the physician might be held liable in civil court, do they face anything in criminal court?

The law is divided into two primary areas: criminal and civil. Civil law involves areas like personal injury, malpractice, and any instance where one person seeks money from another person. Criminal law, on the other hand, is not designed to compensate anyone. Instead, it seeks to punish the defendant. A person that does something wrong is then fined or imprisoned for their wrongdoing. They might be arrested for theft, murder, or assault. Regardless, they have violated the law and are now being punished.

In some cases, the civil and criminal law will interact with one another, but not always. Most injury cases remain a civil matter. However, there are instances where a medical malpractice case can venture into criminal courts. While rare, these instances involve physicians who are more than just making mistakes. These physicians are profiting from those errors or purposely causing injury to their patients.

Understanding the Basics of Medical Malpractice Claims in Stamford, CT

Medical malpractice occurs when a physician fails to provide an acceptable standard of care. All medical professionals, including nurses; physicians; medical assistants; surgeons; and medical facilities, are required to follow appropriate standards when helping their patients.

In most cases, a deviation from the standard results in a malpractice claim against the at-fault party but remains civil. A victim is compensated for injuries and financial damages. These injuries and damages include medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, temporary or permanent disability, and any disfigurement.

What Is the Standard of Care?

Healthcare professionals are expected to abide by a set of standards. These standards determine how they treat patients, protocols they must follow during treatment, and any special requirements they must meet. By following a standard set of rules, the theory is that there are fewer medical errors. Therefore, when a physician deviates from the acceptable standard, they may be considered negligent.

The “standard” is a blanket term, and it depends on the physician and situation. Your physician’s actions would be compared to that of another physician with similar training, background, and practice in the same specialty. If your lawsuit is against a cardiac surgeon, his or her actions would not be compared to a general physician. If other cardiac surgeons would have proceeded differently than how your physician did, then you can show that they deviated from the acceptable standard. In most cases, this means having professionals testify in court about how they would have proceeded.

When Does Medical Malpractice Turn Criminal?

Malpractice may become a criminal matter if the case has some of the more extreme circumstances attached to it. If the patient dies, then the case might be considered for criminal action by the state. Any time a patient dies without malice, it could still be considered manslaughter, especially when gross negligence applies.

The actions of the physician and the outcome of those actions determine whether it is a matter of criminal law. For medical malpractice to reach the criminal level, the district attorney must prove that the physician’s conduct meets the crime’s necessary elements. They also must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the physician is guilty of the person’s injury or death.

Examples of Physician Actions That Lead to Criminal Charges

Specific acts by a physician are more likely to create criminal charges in addition to civil penalties.

Healthcare Fraud

Malpractice might involve health care fraud. In this case, the medical professional is using procedures or prescribing medications to receive money. They might prescribe medications that are unnecessary to receive more from insurance companies. They might perform unnecessary procedures to get more out of Medicare and Medicaid. They may even bill for procedures that they did not perform.

If the patient suffers from a complication because of the haphazard prescribing, it is not only malpractice but also criminal.

In some cases, physicians have improper or inadequate training on a procedure and are not prescribing it for monetary gain. In that case, they would not be committing healthcare fraud.

Conducting Unnecessary Procedures

Unnecessary treatments, surgeries, and medical procedures put a patient at significant risk for injury. No procedure is 100 percent safe, and even taking a minor vitamin supplement could cause injury to a patient. When a physician performs unnecessary procedures knowingly, they may be charged with healthcare fraud and also assault or manslaughter if the patient dies because of the procedure.

For example, a patient undergoes an unnecessary cardiac stent procedure but dies during the surgery. Family members can sue for the loss of their loved one, but prosecutors may also charge the physician in criminal courts for conducting unnecessary procedures.

Prescribing for Monetary Gain

Some physicians prescribe medications not because it will help their patients, but because they receive a kickback from the manufacturer of the medication. In this case, the physician is deviating from the standard of care and also committing a crime. When that physician prescribing leads to injury, dangerous interactions, or death, they may face criminal charges.

Physician Purposefully Harms a Patient

In sporadic instances, a physician might face criminal charges if they intentionally cause harm to a patient. Whether it is out of retribution or for another reason, if a physician deviates from their acceptable standard and purposely causes harm, they will face criminal charges. More so, they may face harsher penalties. Instead of involuntary manslaughter for a patient’s death, they could face homicide charges if they cause a patient’s death on purpose.

The Case of Conrad Murray

Doctor Conrad Murray, the physician who was caring for Michael Jackson, was facing criminal charges for allegedly giving Jackson a dangerous dose of an anesthetic known as Propofol, which led to his death. He was convicted of manslaughter and served two years out of the four-year sentence he received for the death of his patient.

In this case, Murray was facing more than just a fine for his error. He was being charged with manslaughter, which is the unlawful killing of a human without malice. Murray did not intend to kill Jackson, but his actions were negligent enough to justify involuntary manslaughter charges. Prosecutors had to prove that he was not only negligent but also that he took risks that other physicians would not have taken – thus, causing his patient’s death. The prosecution succeeded in their case and Murray was convicted.

Murray had been giving Jackson nightly doses of the drug to treat insomnia for over two months. He was also hired to be Jackson’s private physician during his comeback tour. Prosecutors stated that Murray’s negligence led to Jackson’s death because Murray allowed Jackson to be unmonitored and on an IV drip of the potent medication.

Even though Murray’s defense attorneys argued that Jackson self-administered against physician orders, Murray was the prescribing physician and gave Jackson the necessary equipment to provide himself with the lethal dose. The judge overseeing the case gave him the maximum sentence even though he was eligible to receive probation. The judge issued the four-year prison sentence because he felt Murray had exhibited a cycle of lousy medicine; instead of this being a single incidence.

Now that Murray has served his sentence, he seeks to reinstate his medical license in California.

Does the Outcome of a Criminal Case Matter?

If a physician’s negligence injured you, and that same physician is facing criminal charges, you may wonder if the criminal case outcome affects your civil case. In most instances, it will not. This is because a higher evidentiary standard is required in criminal court cases over malpractice cases.

In criminal courts, the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil court, the plaintiff must only prove that the defendant is guilty with the preponderance of the evidence. The preponderance of the evidence means that you can provide enough evidence to tip the scales enough in your favor, but the jury does not have to believe the defendant was negligent beyond a reasonable doubt to award your settlement.

Most Medical Malpractice Cases Are Not Criminal

While there are instances when a physician could be held criminally liable in a malpractice case, most physicians will only face civil penalties for their errors. In a medical malpractice case, the victim (plaintiff) must show that the physician deviated from the acceptable standard of care and that the deviation caused their injury. If they can do this, then they may succeed at winning a settlement.

Most Malpractice Cases Settle out of Court

In most instances, malpractice claims settle outside of the courtroom. This is because court cases are costly, and they are highly unpredictable. Therefore, the malpractice insurance company and defense attorney will try to settle the case out of court to avoid unnecessary costs. Also, when a case is settled out of court, it might not become a matter of public record, which some physicians value more than paying a higher settlement value.

Injured by a Physician’s Negligence? Speak with an Attorney

If you or a loved one suffered from an injury because of a physician’s negligence, then you need to speak with a malpractice attorney. Proving these types of cases is difficult, and you need an attorney who has experience handling malpractice claims – whether they result in criminal charges or not.

Contact Berkowitz Hanna today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation.