The 4 ‘D’s’ of a medical malpractice lawsuit

When patients are considering filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, or a doctor must defend one, they should consider whether the situation meets all four criteria common to this special kind of personal injury case.

The four points that must be met in such a suit are commonly called the “Four D’s.”

1. Duty. When there’s a doctor-patient relationship, the doctor is expected to follow certain rules and meet certain expectations of competence. Among those are patient confidentiality, treating the patient with respect, and listening to the patient. If the doctor can help the patient, the doctor should do so. If the doctor can’t help, he or she should be able to refer the patient to another specialist or physician who can handle the patient’s issue.

2. Dereliction. If there’s dereliction, the doctor has violated the duty or trust outlined in No. 1. For example, the doctor may go beyond the defined scope of work — he was supposed to remove an appendix, but while he was in surgery, he also took out the gallbladder. Of course, the situation could be more serious. The doctor may do something wrong by accident, such as amputating the wrong foot, or act recklessly, or, in rare cases, even do something intentionally wrong. Other examples of dereliction of duty are mistaken diagnosis or missing a diagnosis altogether; giving the wrong medication; offering treatment in a dirty environment that leads to infection; or neglect, which is common in cases involving nursing homes.

3. Direct causation. If there was dereliction of duty, did it directly cause the negative outcome that has a patient considering whether to file a lawsuit? A misdiagnosis that leads to a patient’s death, for instance, might be considered direct causation. Medical records and other evidence are critical to proving causation. In many cases, a doctor may argue that the patient was likely to suffer or die anyway, regardless of diagnosis or action.

4. Damages. What physical or emotional harm did the physician cause to the patient? Damages refer to a monetary amount that would address not just harm to the body, but harm to the patient’s psychological well-being and way of life. Specifically, the lawsuit may cite medical bills, lost wages, emotional distress, pain and suffering and/or wrongful death. In some cases, punitive damages also may be awarded if the physician’s actions were extremely negligent.

A medical expert witness and a medical malpractice attorney can help patients and defendant understand the components of a lawsuit and what’s at stake. They can also help explain possible outcomes of a suit; state laws vary and may cap the amount of damages that can be awarded.