As a medical malpractice attorney in Ohio, I am always amazed at the articles and comments that you hear or read about in terms of a doctor or hospital being found “guilty” of medical malpractice. Story line: “Jury finds doctor guilty of medical malpractice or hospital guilty in wrongful death case.” This type of statement is misleading and does an injustice to all concerned. The term “guilty” implies a criminal finding or a state of mind that suggests that the doctor or the healthcare worker intended to cause harm. The truth is that when a patient is injured due to medical malpractice, there is seldom a criminal intent to cause harm and there is no requirement to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the doctor is guilty of anything. When a jury finds a doctor negligent of causing injury, there is no finding by the jury that the law was broken and certainly the doctor is not sent to jail or found guilty of any crime.
When a patient is harmed by a doctor’s mistake, the consequences to the patient and the family of the patient can be life-altering. The patient or the family of the patient feels betrayed by the medical profession. We all are told to trust our doctors and when that trust is violated and a medical mistake or error occurs, it is difficult to understand how it could have happened and why it happened. Trying to get a reasonable explanation from the doctor is often impossible and frequently couched in terms that are difficult to understand by the average non-medically trained patient.
When doctors or other healthcare professionals make a mistake and it causes serious harm, there is seldom an intent to cause harm. The mistake may have been unavoidable or it may have been due to negligence, but regardless of why it happened, every patient is entitled to honesty and transparency from their physicians. Instead, denial and refusal to accept responsibility frequently leads to patients having to hire an attorney to get to the truth. If only the doctor would be honest and take the time to explain what happened and to apologize, more often than not, this type of communication will avoid the need to hire an attorney and will potentially save the doctor-patient relationship and restore the trust that is so important to have.
To err is human and when a doctor makes a mistake and accepts responsibility for his mistake, he is doing what we teach our children and what we expect of everyone in society. That does not mean that there are not consequences for the mistake if it causes serious harm, but to try to hide the truth or blame others is something that violates the core of everything that we know about in society. Instead, doctors frequently refuse to accept responsibility knowing full well that they made a mistake that should have been avoided if they had exercised reasonable care. Instead, they view the very victim of their mistake – their patient, as a potential litigant – the enemy- and they hide the truth and refuse to do the right thing.
Having said all of this, when a lawsuit gets filed or when it gets to trial, the media and, thus, most jurors think in terms of guilt in order to hold a doctor responsible for negligent care. Jurors in Ohio and throughout the nation are instructed that medical malpractice or medical negligence is a failure to act as a reasonable doctor should have acted under similar circumstances. Unfortunately, jurors tend to think that if the doctor did not intend to cause injury or death, then the doctor should be found “not guilty.” This logic leads to an injustice for the injured patient. When a patient is injured and the doctor was negligent, there is no need to prove guilt. The only requirement is to prove that the doctor made a medical error; that he was negligent!
We all hope for the best of medical care and in large part that is what we get. However, when a doctor or a hospital allows an avoidable error to occur, please do not think that the doctor needs to be found guilty in order to compensate the injured party. Next time you hear or see a story about a doctor being found guilty of medical malpractice in Ohio, stop and correct the person and let them know that a medical malpractice case is a civil action (not a criminal action) to compensate for harms caused by negligence. Tell them correctly that a crime has not been committed and the law has not been violated. Let them know that the doctor does not face jail time or loss of his license. Next time you have the occasion to sit on a jury, you will hopefully understand that the burden of proof in Ohio is to prove more likely than not or to a probability that the doctor was negligent. Think of the scales of justice and the slightest tipping of the scales in favor of one side or the other as the level of proof required to find for the injured patient. It is not required in Ohio to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the doctor was negligent or that he committed a crime.