Serving The Injured In New York And Pennsylvania

Misdiagnosis and “worsened condition”

On Behalf of | Jun 6, 2023 | Medical Malpractice

Within the law of personal injury, medical malpractice has a somewhat specialized place, with some of its own requirements. And within medical malpractice, misdiagnosis cases are still more specialized.

The key difference between misdiagnosis cases and other medical malpractice claims is that the plaintiff must show how they were harmed by the faulty diagnosis. They must show that they suffered a worsened condition because they did not receive the correct diagnosis in a timely manner.

We’ll explore that idea further in this blog post, but first we should cover the basics of medical malpractice.

Professional standards

Most personal injury lawsuits are based on the legal theory of negligence. To win a case based on negligence, the plaintiff must prove four elements:

  • Duty: The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and others like them to avoid the risks of harming them in a predictable accident.
  • Breach: The defendant breached that duty.
  • Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty caused injury to the plaintiff.
  • Damages: The plaintiff suffered damages due to the injury.

These elements are the same in all negligence cases, but the element of duty works a little differently in medical malpractice.

In a car accident case, the court might ask what a reasonable driver might have done under similar circumstances. This is sometimes known as the “reasonable person standard.”

There’s a different standard in medical malpractice. Medical professionals have a heightened duty of care to their patients. They cannot be expected to cure every disease or heal every injury, but they are expected to deliver care that is up to professional standards.

Rather than asking what a reasonable person would have done, a court asks whether what the defendant did (or failed to do) was consistent with the standards of their profession. If the care they provided fell short of professional standards, and that breach of care caused harm to the patient, they can be held liable for the patient’s damages.

Worsened condition

Misdiagnosis cases add another wrinkle to these legal concepts.

To give an example, imagine that a patient goes to an emergency room, complaining of a terrible headache. A doctor examines the patient and determines that he has a migraine. The doctor gives the patient a prescription for a pain reliver, and tells them to go home, lie down with the lights down low, and wait for the migraine to pass.

The next day, the patient returns to the emergency room and his symptoms are much worse. Now, he is slurring his words and appears disoriented. A different doctor examines him and finds that the patient experienced a stroke more than 24 hours earlier and the condition worsened because it was not treated in time. The patient will suffer permanent brain damage.

The patient files a medical malpractice claim against the first doctor, claiming that the failure to diagnose the stroke in a timely manner has caused him permanent injury that might have otherwise been avoided.

As with any other personal injury case, the plaintiff must prove duty, breach, causation and damages. As with any medical malpractice case, the question of duty involves professional standards: Did the first doctor fail to provide professional-quality care?

But in this case, the elements of causation and damages are somewhat different. The first doctor did not cause the stroke, but they failed to diagnose the stroke during the first visit. In addition to asking whether the doctor failed to provide professional care, the court must measure the injury to the patient in terms of their worsened condition.

The patient may hold the doctor liable for their damages, but only those damages related to their worsened condition. This type of case can lead to extraordinarily complex questions about medical care.