Many people assume that doctors and other healthcare professionals are infallible, but sadly this is not the case. According to the National Health Service (NHS), medical negligence is among the top three reasons for patient complaints and litigation against doctors and other healthcare professionals. While medical staff strives to provide you with the best possible care, things do go wrong from time to time through no fault of your own. These mistakes can sometimes cause severe injury or even death.
Medical negligence can take many forms. Among these are:
- Failure to provide an adequate standard of care
- Surgery performed on the wrong part of the body or on the wrong patient
- Delaying necessary treatment that leads to an increased risk of death or long-term damage
These are just some examples, but they give you a flavor for how negligence can lead to serious problems for patients.
How To Prove Fault of Death By Medical Negligence
The courts’ approach has been consistent and clear. Conduct that leads to wrongful death is criminal if it demonstrates such a degree of departure from reasonable behavior to be adequately described as blameworthy. Hence, the prosecutors must prove the fault of death by medical negligence. Here’s how:
(1) Death Must Be Caused By The Continuing Course of Treatment
The prosecution must show that the patient’s death resulted from a continuing course of treatment. That means the alleged wrongful conduct must be ongoing and not a single event or omission. It must be proved that a reasonable doctor, in the circumstances, would have continued with the treatment. If so, there is no crime. If not, and if death resulted from that treatment, then it may amount to a crime.
(2) What Is A Reasonable Doctor Will Vary From Case To Case
The practical doctor test cannot occur in a vacuum or be reduced to an abstract construct different from medical realities and all their complexities. Must therefore be sensitive to variations in the circumstances of each specific case. It is not an absolute standard but one that varies according to the specific facts of a given situation, such as:
- How advanced was the patient’s illness?
- What alternatives were available for managing it?
- Did those alternatives carry similar risks and benefits?
- Were the alternatives realistic ones that a typical doctor in a typical medical practice might reasonably be expected to choose?
(3) Retrospective Causation
The lawfulness of retrospective causation is questionable. When a patient becomes unhappy about the consequences of treatment, they need to improve its results by asking for an unauthorized procedure. Otherwise, even if it is arranged independently and then has a bad outcome from this intervention without any causal connection between the two events, the doctor may nevertheless be held criminally responsible for harm caused by the initial treatment through negligence alone. On the other hand, if death follows what appears to be a deliberate attempt to intervene to correct an undesired outcome that arose from lawful treatment, then the retrospective assessment can reach different conclusions.
(4) Need To Prove Harm, Not Just Risk Of Harm
The prosecution must prove that not only was harm foreseeable but that it occurred. The outcome of treatment should be the object of care, for this then determines whether or not proper medical supervision was provided. Suppose there was no actual outcome other than the risk of an outcome that did not happen. In that case, there can have been no crime because there was no actual harm done to the patient, even if the course of action taken by the doctor had its origin in a negligent choice rather than being one driven by necessity.
(5) Coroners And Medical Examiners Are Precluded From Giving Opinion Evidence
When an injury or death is sudden, unexpected, and has no medical history to explain it, coroners and medical examiners must confine their evidence in criminal proceedings to factual descriptions of the victim’s condition without suggesting what they believe was the cause of death. A doctor who does so may well prejudice a jury against the accused by making it look like some undisclosed reason for suspecting that they are guilty.
(6) The Timing Of Treatment
When considering medical evidence about causation, the prosecution is entitled to assume that any delay in treatment had no adverse effect. If there is reliable evidence that a later intervention could not have altered the result, then this assumption applies even if it occurred sometime after treatment had begun. Since doctors cannot, therefore, be held criminally responsible for all consequences arising from their omissions without taking into account what would have happened if they had acted differently, this means that causation must sometimes occur after rather than during treatment.
Proving medical negligence under criminal law can be a complex process. Many controversial areas within these laws may affect any case being brought to trial. Understanding how medical negligence is viewed under criminal law in any given jurisdiction can be very helpful in pursuing a case.