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A doctor's duty of care in a medical malpractice suit

Victims of doctor error or surgical error often hear rebuttals like "doctors are only human," that "everyone makes mistakes," and similar attempts to shift the blame onto the victims themselves. To some extent, of course, these statements are true. No one expects a doctor, nurse, surgeon or other provider to be a superhuman, flawless and immune to error.

There are, however, certain legal standards that govern the relationship between a physician and a patient. These have to do with what's known as the "duty of care" owed to a patient. Let's take a closer look at what this means, in order to provide our Ann Arbor readers with some general information (not intended as specific legal advice) on this important subject for anyone pursuing a medical malpractice claim.

The relationship between a doctor and a patient is different than the relationship between a doctor and anyone else with whom he or she shares a public space. Doctors to not owe a duty of care, for example, to their fellow passengers on the bus; to others sitting around them at a concert; or to people with whom they are dining at a restaurant. They are not liable to provide services to any of those people if injury or harm should befall them, and cannot be sued for medical malpractice if they refuse to do so.

Once a physician does voluntarily offer help to someone in need, however, he or she accepts liability for any harm caused due to his or her own negligence in the process. Again, let's be clear -- that doesn't mean the doctor is expected to work miracles. The law will take into consideration, among other things:

  • The doctor's area of expertise,
  • The "locality rule" (i.e., what is accepted as common medical practice in the region), and
  • What is available in terms of equipment at the time.

Arguing that a doctor had a duty of care to a patient, which he or she breached, giving rise to injury and damages, will be vital to a successful medical malpractice claim.

Source: Findlaw.com, "What Is a Doctor's Duty of Care?," accessed on March 13, 2015

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