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College 101: What Malpractice Means

I recently found out that my friend’s dad, a surgeon, has been for sued malpractice three times! I was scandalized, but my friend said that it was no big deal. I don’t understand. Isn’t malpractice a term for doing something unethical as a doctor? If her dad delivered bad care to his patients on purpose, I think that’s an incredibly awful thing. How is it that my friend doesn’t care? Can you explain this to me?

Malpractice can be very serious, but remember that you don’t know the whole story. Your friend has more information about the nature of these lawsuits that you do, and it’s not your place to judge her family. Keep your opinions private.

While it’s not necessary to share your view of your friend’s father with her (or even to dwell on it yourself), your specific question is a useful one to discuss: what is malpractice? So, with the caveat that your friend’s family is none of your business, let’s talk about medical malpractice.

A medical malpractice lawsuit is a civil case, say the Syracuse medical malpractice lawyers we spoke to. The basic idea is that when doctors harm patients unjustly, the patients should be entitled to compensation. Medical malpractice is generally defined as a departure from the standard of care that results in injury and damages to a patient. It’s not necessarily or even usually an intentional act by the doctor--instead, it’s often about negligence (indeed, if a doctor were proven to be intentionally harming a patient, that would likely result in criminal charges, not just a civil case like a malpractice suit).

The right to file a malpractice lawsuit is an important one for patients, who deserve the right to seek compensation if they are wronged. But, of course, this doesn’t mean that every medical malpractice suit has merit, or that every one that may have merit ends up winning in court. Many cases are settled, and patients’ win percentage in those that do make it to court (27%) is much lower than that of plaintiffs in other types of lawsuits (52%). All doctors are required to carry medical malpractice insurance, and most doctors over the age of 55 have been sued at least once. Some types of doctors are sued more often, on average, than others.

In short, medical malpractice is a vital legal tool for patients, but it’s not in and of itself a damning thing for a doctor to have ever been sued (especially if the lawsuit was not successful). There’s no way for you to know whether or not your friend’s father is a good doctor, but--unless you happen to need his services--there’s also no particular reason for you to be concerned about finding out.

“The time is always right to do what is right.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

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