Can Medical Malpractice Lead to a Prison Sentence?

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Most medical malpractice is worlds away from the evil doctors that have infiltrated the zeitgeist. While a doctor’s last name does not have to be Kevorkian to qualify for a prison sentence, it does take a tremendous amount of gross negligence or malicious intent to be tried as a criminal. 

Before you try to retaliate against someone who may have just made an honest mistake or could not do anything to change a loved one’s condition, you should understand what malpractice is, the difference between civil and criminal cases, and what makes some medical malpractice a crime. 

What is Malpractice? 

Malpractice is the name for when a physician fails in their duty to care for their patients and abandon the standard of care. Malpractice can be as simple as a pharmacist making a medication preparation error caused by contamination after not thoroughly washing their hands. It could also be as grave as leaving a surgical tool inside a patient and causing fatal sepsis. 

The most common type of malpractice to be pursued in court is misdiagnosis. Due to complex medical histories and hard-to-detect illnesses, reaching the correct diagnosis is not always easy or possible in the time it would take to begin proper treatment.  

There are as many types and degrees of malpractice as there are medical conditions. To truly understand if your situation was malpractice, speak to a medical malpractice attorney. 

Civil vs. Criminal Cases

Civil suits are brought by citizens or the estates of deceased patients, and their main goal is to seek damages, financial compensation for hardships, injuries, or death, as a solution to a doctor’s actions. 

Criminal cases are brought on by the government with the intent to punish or incarcerate the defendant. Often these cases will happen simultaneously if damages are being sought by the injured party and the government has determined a crime may have been committed. 

While not impossible, medical malpractice suits that lead to criminal charges are extremely rare. There would need to be severe circumstances or signs of intended harm. Sometimes a patient’s death is enough to warrant a criminal investigation, but honest mistakes are almost never considered a crime. Doctors make an oath to “do no harm,” but it cannot always be avoided. 

You may need an experienced attorney to diagnose whether the medical malpractice lawsuit you have in mind in a civil or criminal case. You cannot hire a government attorney to prosecute a doctor criminally, but your legal representation can advise you on who to approach with your story. 

When is it a Crime? 

Gross negligence is one circumstance where a doctor might be found guilty of a crime. To be criminally negligent, a doctor must disregard the health or safety of their patient. Showing up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a state of fatigue that makes performing their job safely impossible are both conditions that would be gross negligence. 

The law has a concept known as “mens rea” that highlights the intent of the alleged criminal. In most cases, doctors are only trying their best to help a patient and not intending any harm or death. Although wrongful death lawsuits are not strictly criminal cases, and if you can prove a wrongful death occurred, that is grounds for a civil suit. 

Other Consequences

While it may seem like it is impossible to punish doctors for mistakes or decisions with heavy consequences, there is more to the story. Doctors carry malpractice insurance so they can work in the medical field with less risk of being bankrupted by a civil suit. In serious cases like a wrongful death suit, their insurance premiums can skyrocket and disable them from working as a doctor anymore, or they simply become uninsurable and have to give up medicine. 

So, while it can be near impossible to put a doctor behind bars, you can find a way to make sure they do not have the opportunity to make any more fatal mistakes. 

About the Author

Cheryl Roy has built a successful legal career over the years. However, she wanted to reach out to people beyond her practice and decided to do so by writing. Cheryl took it as a personal mission to make legal information more accessible to the public. Therefore, she started sharing her expertise with individuals and businesses facing a legal dilemma. Now she has branched out to many online and offline platforms and works as a collaborative editor for Bader Scott Law Firm.

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