Wrongful death is a legal term used to define the taking of a person’s life through another’s negligent, willful, or deliberate action. In the medical field, this includes negligent actions by a physician causing a patient’s death. Though any unexpected death of a loved one is tragic, a patient dying from the careless actions of healthcare providers is particularly devastating.
We trust the qualifications and abilities of certified medical staff to adhere to basic accepted standards of care. From delayed diagnosis to emergency room and surgical malpractice, negligence can result in wrongful death in almost any area of medicine.
A medical malpractice wrongful death case is usually filed when a patient dies from the negligent actions of healthcare workers and/or a medical facility, there are rules and regulations regarding who and when a claim can be filed.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against a Physician?
When an individual dies due to the wrongful conduct of others, the decedent’s heirs and lawful beneficiaries can take legal action through filing a wrongful death claim, however, there are many laws and regulations that must be followed.
These laws and regulations are responsible for determining who can legally represent the deceased party in the courtroom, statutes of limitations, and what the evidence provided by the legal representation of the plaintiff must prove.
The legal representation for the decedent as well as any “real party of interest,” as defined by law, can sue for recompense.
Most survivors in a wrongful death civil action include:
- Immediate Family Members: The spouse and children, or the parents of any unmarried person.
- Spouses: Those who are legally married.
- Parents: In some incidents, both or either parent of a deceased newborn can file a wrongful death claim to recover emotional and financial losses, if the child died after being born alive.
- Distant Family Members: In some incidents, distant family members including grandparents, brothers, and sisters have the legal right to file a wrongful death claim and pursue a lawsuit as necessary.
The type of compensation sought by the family of the decedent varies greatly.
Some of the compensation considered by the court includes, current and future lost earnings from the decedent, compensatory damages for lost companionship and consortium, funeral and burial expenses, and outstanding medical bills associated with the incident, grief, anxiety, pain, and suffering.
And, though these things are all inevitably part of losing someone needlessly, there is only a short window of time in which a claim can be filed, this is called the statute of limitations.
Statute of Limitations
Each state has a statute of limitations that it imposes on certain types of claims or lawsuits and dictates the length of time someone has to file a claim before legally being barred from doing so.
In Oregon, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is three years, with the exception of institutions like OHSU, which allow for a two year statute.
Wrongful Death Settlements
Like any medical malpractice case, a settlement may be reached at any point during the process. During mediation, it is common for both parties to negotiate and come to an agreement, as settling is generally encouraged. Trials are typically more expensive, emotionally and financially, and rarely lead to better outcomes for injured parties.
If a claim does end up going to court, a jury is responsible for determining the outcome of the lawsuit.
Elements of Wrongful Death Court Cases
When presenting a malpractice case in court, there are three distinct elements, or requirements, the attorney trying the case must present to the jury using expert witness testimony and medical records.
The Three Elements
Each of the three elements must be proven in order for surviving family members to litigate a case for financial compensation successfully.
The three key elements include:
- Negligence: The surviving members or their legal representatives must prove the death of the patient (the plaintiff) was caused (in part or in whole) by the recklessness, carelessness, or negligent actions of the treating physician (defendant).
- Causation: In addition to proving how the duty of the defendant was breached toward the deceased, the lawsuit plaintiff must also prove how the defendant’s negligence caused their loved one’s death.
- Damages: The death of the victim must have generated quantifiable damages such as hospitalization, medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, loss of income and potential earnings, loss of protection, guidance and inheritance, along with pain and suffering of the victim prior to death.
Proving these points in court through a wrongful death lawsuit is complicated and requires producing strong, convincing evidence and expert witness testimony presented by a skilled attorney specializing in wrongful death cases.
What are the Three Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death?
Delayed Diagnosis or Misdiagnosis
Physicians are trained to use the latest advancements in technology to correctly diagnose the medical conditions of their patients. When the diagnosis is delayed, or misdiagnosed altogether, it can cause significant and irreparable harm to the health of the patient.
When an incorrect diagnosis, or a failure to diagnose results in the patient’s death, the surviving family members have a right to file for compensation from all responsible parties.
Emergency Room Malpractice
Because of the nature of an urgent medical situation, any error made during the treatment of a patient in the emergency room can have severe and lasting consequences.
From failing to order proper tests, to prescribing correct medications, and poor communication, there are many opportunities for errors and the greatest care must be taken. Emergency room staff must be able to assess, act, and treat quickly to achieve the standard of care.
Many wrongful death cases involve emergency room errors including:
- Medication Errors
- Failure to order necessary tests
- Failure to monitor progress of the patient
- Lab errors
- Failure to diagnose
- Failure to treat or delayed treatment
- Hospital Negligence
- Failing to admit a patient
- Prematurely discharging a patient
Surgical errors can be made before a physician even enters the operating room.
Mistakes in the patient’s medical records can put them at risk, for example, if the wrong side of the body is noted in the medical records. If a surgeon or other healthcare professionals fail to note the discrepancy, the patient may have a procedure done on the wrong part of their body.
Additionally, there are errors that can occur during a procedure and errors that happen after a surgery is complete, all of which can cause lasting issues or even the death of a patient.
Some examples of errors that can result in patient injury during surgery are:
- Prescription medication errors
- Prolonged surgeries
- Improper surgical methods
- Anesthesia Errors
- Damage to internal organs
- Unnecessary surgery
- Surgical Site Infections
When A Death is Caused By Medical Malpractice
There are many ways in which a negligent physician can cause irreparable harm or even death to a patient. Needless to say, losing a loved one is devastating and pursuing a wrongful death case comes with many legal requirements, but holding the responsible party accountable can provide families some relief.
Finding an experienced attorney who can help navigate the process is paramount to the case. They can provide support and legally advise on everything from the statute of limitations to what evidence must be provided.
Contact us if you would like an evaluation of your potential medical malpractice claim.
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