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Criminal Medical Negligence Examples: When Medical Malpractice Becomes Criminal

Updated April 1, 2024 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

People sometimes joke that doctors “practice” medicine—in other words, they aren’t perfect.

Although the vast majority of health care providers do their best to heal or help their patients, they sometimes make mistakes. Suppose a physician’s error results in a patient’s injury. In that case, the law allows the patient to request compensation for the additional medical bills and suffering they endure through a medical malpractice claim.

Medical malpractice awards help people who were injured due to a doctor’s negligence move on with their lives. They also hold doctors and health care facilities responsible to provide medical treatment that meets the generally accepted standard of care.

But it’s rare for a doctor facing a malpractice claim to be charged with a crime. Why is that? When does medical malpractice cross the line and become a crime?

What’s the Difference Between Routine Medical Malpractice and Criminal Malpractice?

To understand the difference between routine medical malpractice and criminal malpractice, we first need to know what medical malpractice is.

Medical Malpractice and the Standard of Care

When a patient’s health and life are at stake, a mistake, a momentary lapse in attention, or a miscommunication between a doctor and a nurse can cause big problems. 

The core issue in medical malpractice is that the healthcare practitioner was negligent.

The standards of professional conduct spelled out in Indiana law (844 IAC 5-2-5) require health care practitioners to “exercise reasonable care and diligence in the treatment of patients based upon generally accepted scientific principles, methods, treatments, and current professional theory and practice.” This is commonly known as the accepted standard of care.

Common causes of medical malpractice include leaving surgical tools in a patient, prescribing the wrong medication, or making an incorrect diagnosis. Regardless of the specifics of a case, medical malpractice occurs when healthcare personnel are negligent in following the standard of care and, as a result, their patient is injured.

Negligence: The Key to Telling the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Malpractice

Negligence is the failure to use reasonable care or the same care that another, reasonable person would use in the same or similar situation. In the context of practicing medicine, negligence is the failure to provide the standard of care that a typical doctor in a similar area would provide in a patient’s case.

The level of negligence involved is what causes a civil malpractice case to cross the line from an honest mistake and become criminal medical malpractice.

Mens Rea: Criminal Intent

U.S. law applies the concept of mens rea, or criminal intent, to criminal cases. Mens rea is a Latin phrase that means “guilty mind.” It refers to a defendant’s frame of mind when they committed an alleged crime. In general, there is no crime if there is no criminal intent.

Suppose a doctor tries in good faith to heal a patient’s illness. In the course of their duties, the doctor makes a mistake that causes the patient’s condition to become worse. This is an ordinary act of negligence with no criminal intent. The doctor may be liable for medical malpractice, but they probably won’t be charged with a crime.

However, some cases go beyond ordinary negligence. Indiana law (IC 35-41-2-2) specifies three levels of culpability (or responsibility) in criminal acts. These three levels can be used to describe criminal negligence.

A person can commit an act:

  1. Intentionally—with the “conscious objective” of doing so.
  2. Knowingly—that is, while “aware of a high probability” of doing so.
  3. Recklessly—if the act is carried out “in plain, conscious, and unjustifiable disregard of harm that might result and the disregard involves a substantial deviation from acceptable standards of conduct.”

If a doctor intentionally gives a patient a lethal dose of a medication and the patient dies, the doctor is liable not only for medical malpractice but can also be charged with murder.

If a doctor is reckless in administering drugs to a patient and the patient dies, they can be charged with manslaughter. Pop star Michael Jackson’s sudden death at age 50 was caused by an overdose of an anesthetic typically used in a hospital setting for surgical procedures. The drug was administered to Jackson at home to help him get some sleep. Jackson’s doctor was charged with involuntary manslaughter; he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

Criminal Medical Negligence: Definition

Criminal medical negligence is when a healthcare practitioner intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly commits an act that deviates from the standard of care and harms a patient in some way.

Comparing Civil Medical Malpractice and Criminal Medical Malpractice Cases

In a civil medical malpractice case: In a criminal medical malpractice case:
  • The doctor is negligent but has no intention of causing harm.
  • The doctor is intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly negligent.
  • The victim (the patient) files a civil lawsuit to recover damages (monetary compensation).
  • A prosecuting attorney files criminal charges to punish the perpetrator.
  • The defendant (the doctor) may be obligated to pay damages.
  • The defendant faces a prison sentence if convicted.
  • The victim can still file a civil medical malpractice claim to recover damages.

Criminal Medical Malpractice FAQ

Is Medical Malpractice a Criminal Act?

Medical malpractice can be a criminal act. It depends on the health care practitioner’s level of negligence.

  • If they made a mistake, they may be liable for medical malpractice but are unlikely to be charged with a crime.
  • If they acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly, they could be charged with a crime and held liable for medical malpractice.

The vast majority of medical malpractice cases do not involve a crime

Can You Go to Jail for Medical Malpractice?

You could go to jail for medical malpractice, but only if you were intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly negligent. Most cases of medical malpractice don’t involve this level of negligence.

Is Malpractice a Criminal or Civil Matter?

A victim can file a civil lawsuit following any instance of medical malpractice, whether or not a crime was committed.

It is up to the prosecuting attorney with jurisdiction in a case whether to file criminal charges against a doctor. If you were injured due to a doctor’s negligence and believe their negligence was intentional or reckless, you can file a criminal complaint with the police or with the medical licensing division of the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. They will investigate your complaint and decide whether to charge the doctor with a crime or to suspend their license.

Civil Malpractice Lawsuits

Medical malpractice usually warrants only civil action, not criminal charges. If your medical condition worsened or you were injured because of a health care practitioner’s negligence, you may have:

  • Additional medical bills
  • Require a new course of treatment
  • Miss time from work
  • Experience physical pain
  • Be left with a permanent disability

Through a medical malpractice lawsuit, you might be able to receive compensation to offset your additional expenses or ease your pain and suffering.

Our medical malpractice FAQ provides more information on medical malpractice cases.

Medical Malpractice: Criminal Cases

Medical malpractice criminal cases are rare because a health care practitioner must act in a grossly negligent, incompetent, or indifferent way toward a patient before they can be charged with a crime.

The actions of criminally negligent doctors go beyond ordinary negligence. For example, they might:

  • Ignore important information, putting a patient’s life at risk
  • Show up to work intoxicated
  • Abuse patients
  • Carry out illegal activities on the job

Another reason medical malpractice criminal cases are rare is that a prosecutor must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed an alleged crime. No one can be convicted on suspicion of a crime. There must be clear and convincing evidence that proves the defendant’s guilt.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

The experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyers at Wilson Kehoe Winingham can advise you on your medical malpractice case, regardless of whether it involves criminal negligence. Reach out to WKW today for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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