Updated May 17, 2022

When Medical Malpractice Becomes Criminal

Medicine isn’t an exact science, and neither are medical malpractice cases. In general, when a healthcare provider makes a mistake in your treatment, there are likely grounds for you to request compensation for your injury or illness. Medical malpractice law exists to help people like you who have been injured move forward with their lives and keep doctors and hospitals accountable for the care they provide, both now and in the future.

Is there ever a time when medical malpractice is a crime, though? If your medical malpractice case resulted in someone’s death, is it possible that your case could require a criminal trial?

Medical Malpractice: Civil Cases

Medical malpractice cases occur when healthcare providers fail to follow the standard of care that is both appropriate for a situation and the same care another, reasonable provider might have done. The core issue in a medical malpractice case is the negligence of the physician. Mistakes like leaving surgical tools inside of patients, making an incorrect diagnosis, or even wrongful death cases fall under this label.

In most circumstances, medical malpractice cases are a type of civil action or civil case, meaning the victim’s compensation is being fought for, often without regard for punishing the defendant. Medical malpractice cases aim to gain financial support for help with medical costs, lost income, pain, suffering, and disability, along with other things. Jail time for the defendant isn’t considered.

These cases are brought by individual citizens, estates, and their medical malpractice attorneys against the individual or healthcare provider responsible for the injury or death. The plaintiff’s attorney is responsible for proving—via evidence obtained through medical records, research, and consultation with medical experts—that the defendant is responsible for the injuries.

Medical Malpractice: Criminal Cases

While it’s not impossible to charge or convict a physician when a medical error takes place, it is rare. Medical malpractice cases usually aren’t criminal cases. Extreme circumstances are required for a wrongful death or medical malpractice case to become criminal, most often regarding the death of a patient.

The healthcare provider in question needs to act in a grossly negligent, incompetent, or indifferent way to their patient’s care. Rather than making a mistake, criminally negligent doctors must ignore important information that would threaten a patient’s life, show up to work intoxicated or otherwise unable to perform their job, abuse patients, or perform illegal activities while on the job.

Criminal cases are not brought by individuals or estates but by government prosecutors who work on behalf of the victims and the state alike. The goal in criminal cases is the punishment, including incarceration, of the defendants. Prosecutors must be able to prove that the defendant committed the crime in question beyond a reasonable doubt.

These requirements don’t mean that a medical malpractice attorney can’t help you. Getting an opinion from an expert is the best way to know what path to take regarding your case.

When Medical Negligence Is Criminal

The actions that result in a murder trial, if they’re committed by a healthcare provider, could be the basis of a wrongful death lawsuit. However, it’s not true that wrongful death cases are necessarily criminal or even that a risky action in the course of care is reckless enough to warrant charges.

The difference is in a concept called mens rea. This term refers to intent—what the person involved in the criminal act was thinking at the time. In most civil medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuits, defendants may have been negligent and failed to live up to the standard of care that their patients deserved and required, but they weren’t necessarily intending to injure a patient. Criminal cases require that the defendant made a bad judgment call that went beyond negligence and put themselves in a position where they committed manslaughter or homicide.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

If you aren’t sure whether your medical malpractice case is civil or criminal, contact the attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. An experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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