Medical Negligence – Standard of Care

Medical negligence is a significant problem in the United States. According to research performed by John Hopkins Hospital in 2016, medical errors result in an estimated 250,000 deaths each year. This estimate makes medical malpractice the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer.

Types of Medical Malpractice Claims

Medical malpractice cases can be extremely complicated and require both legal and medical expertise. In Washington, a medical malpractice claim can be based on (1) Professional negligence (failure to follow the accepted standard of care); (2) Breach of warranty (a promise by a healthcare provider that an injury would not occur); or (3) Failure to obtain informed consent.

Standard of Care

A doctor, dentist, or other health care provider may be liable for medical malpractice if they failed to follow the accepted standard of care. A plaintiff making a claim for medical negligence in Washington must prove that:

(1) The health care provider failed to exercise that degree of care, skill, and learning expected of a reasonably prudent health care provider at that time in the profession or class to which he or she belongs, in the state of Washington, acting in the same or similar circumstances.

(2) Such failure was a proximate cause of the injury complained of. 

RCW 7.70.040.

Expert Testimony Required

Almost all medical malpractice claims in Washington must be supported by the testimony of an expert witness who practices in the same field of medicine as the defendant. For example, if the negligent treatment was provided by an orthopedic surgeon, the plaintiff would need to hire an expert witness who is an orthopedic surgeon to provide an opinion as to whether the standard of care was met.

Exercise of Judgment

A health care provider is not liable for making an “exercise of judgment” that turns out to be incorrect if (1) the judgment was arrived at by using reasonable care and skill within the standard of care the provider was obliged to follow, and (2) where the provider was confronted with a choice among competing acceptable treatment methods.