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?
To understand the difference between routine medical malpractice and criminal malpractice, we first need to know what medical malpractice is.
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 health care 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 health care personnel are negligent in following the standard of care and, as a result, their patient is injured.
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.
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:
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 is when a health care practitioner intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly commits an act that deviates from the standard of care and harms a patient in some way.
|In a civil medical malpractice case:||In a criminal medical malpractice case:|
Medical malpractice can be a criminal act. It depends on the health care practitioner’s level of negligence.
The vast majority of medical malpractice cases do not involve a crime
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.
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.
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
It’s extremely rare for medical malpractice to become criminal. When physicians do face criminal charges, it’s typically in the event that they’re committing healthcare fraud…
Medical malpractice and medical negligence are different but very much related in that medical malpractice is a kind of negligence. The distinction between the two…
Transcript Malpractice is another name for negligence, and negligence means the failure to exercise reasonable care. When we look at a doctor or a nurse,…
Let WKW put our experience to work for you. Contact us for your free case evaluation.