It goes without saying that improper medical care can and does result in grave injuries and fatalities. Long-established research has demonstrated that medical errors happen with surprising frequency, even at “elite” medical institutions,  and that many if not most instances of medical errors are not reported and/or not acted upon by the victims of those errors.

When a person receives improper medical care in Massachusetts, a number of questions arise. Victims of medical errors wonder how they and their family are going to cope with the consequences of those errors, how they are going to take care of their family. They often wonder if there is something they can do to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. They often feel conflicted: while they do not want to be “litigious”, they feel what happened to them was wrong and ought to be remedied, and they are not getting any straight answers. Some examples of the kinds of medical errors that a victim may be seeking answers to are:

  • failure to diagnose or delay in diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack) or other progressive and otherwise treatable diseases
  • surgical errors, such as performing wrong-sided surgery, unnecessary surgery, contraindicated surgery, or negligently injuring a person during laparoscopic surgery or open surgery
  • errors during childbirth leading to birth trauma, maternal injuries, or other birth-related injuries
  • errors in causing and/or failing to diagnose or treat injuries during routine procedures such as endoscopies or colonoscopies
  • anesthesia errors in clinics, dental offices, and operating rooms alike
  • emergency room errors
  • medication errors, including over-medication and failure to monitor or screen for effects of medication
  • errors in performance of or reporting of laboratory results
  • falls and other accidents at hospitals and rehabilitation facilities

In Massachusetts, the legal remedy for addressing these and other medical errors is in a civil lawsuit for medical negligence, what is commonly known as a suit for medical malpractice. The premise of medical malpractice law in Massachusetts is fairly straightforward: a health care provider who is negligent must compensate the victims of his or her negligence. The concept seems simple enough; any person who injures another due to carelessness should be held accountable to the victim, whether a medical professional or otherwise. Medical malpractice cases in Massachusetts, however, are a sort of separate species of negligence case. They have their own set of laws, legal principles and procedures, and are best handled by lawyers who specialize in medical malpractice law.

Massachusetts medical malpractice law is largely governed by a statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 231 Sections 60B-I. Among other things, the statute sets up a tribunal system for medical malpractice cases. This means that at the outset of the case, the victim, through his attorney, must present a detailed expert opinion that the care received was substandard and caused the victim’s injury. The opinion, submitted in what is known as an “offer of proof”, is reviewed by a court-convened tribunal consisting of a judge, a lawyer, and a physician. If the plaintiff fails to make adequate proof, the victim must post a six thousand dollar bond to go forward with the case, or the case will be dismissed. For this reason, among others, detailed preparation and thorough review by qualified malpractice attorneys with access to quality medical experts early on is essential.

Once the medical malpractice case is allowed to go forward, the case is litigated and then either settled before trial or tried in front of and decided by a jury. In order to succeed at settlement or trial, Massachusetts law requires the victim to prove more than a bad or unexpected medical result. The law requires that the victim present credible expert testimony to prove that the medical care rendered was below the standard of care, and caused the injury or death. In order to prove this, a physician (or other health care provider) must testify as an expert witness that the care rendered by another physician (or other health care provider) was below the care of an average qualified physician in the field, or in other words was medically negligent. Not infrequently, victims of medical malpractice are told in “off the record” discussions with their medical providers that they have been the victim of medical errors. However, it is rare that a medical provider will agree to testify to what the patient has been told in one of these “off the record” discussions. It is equally rare for a local physician to agree to testify that a Massachusetts colleague was medically negligent and caused a patient harm. Therefore, it is the job of the medical malpractice attorney to locate, consult and retain qualified physician experts for testimony in the malpractice case.

In addition to obtaining expert testimony to prove a medical malpractice case, prior to settlement or trial the victim, through his attorney, must conduct extensive investigation (called “discovery”), which includes taking detailed depositions of the health care providers involved and, when appropriate, delving into the practice and procedures of a medical practice or hospital, and even into their computer and communication systems. This process can take a great deal of time, but is essential to obtaining a reasonable settlement or prevailing at trial.

A common myth in Massachusetts and elsewhere is that medical malpractice cases are frequent, plentiful and result in speedy settlements. This is not the case, and one should look at advice along these lines with healthy skepticism. There are only a few medical malpractice insurers in Massachusetts. They are sophisticated, have a great deal of resources, and often litigate their cases up to and through trial. Based in Massachusetts, they have a large pool of experts available. They fully fund and defend the litigation on behalf of the physicians, and hire experts on their behalf. Juries are never told that a doctor or health care provider has insurance, and thus may mistakenly believe that any verdict will bankrupt the doctor. Statistics have shown that 80-90% of medical malpractice cases that are tried are lost by the victims. In 2000, there were 708 medical malpractice cases filed in Massachusetts courts. By 2008, this number dropped to 485.  Make no mistake about it. Medical malpractice cases, even when the negligence appears clear to the victim, are hard-fought, lengthy, expensive legal battles that require the skill of a firm experienced in this specialized area of the law.

So what does someone who believes they have been the victim of medical malpractice in Massachusetts do with this information? The simple answer is find a medical malpractice lawyer you trust, one with demonstrated success in this area, one who will tell you in a straightforward way the good and the bad of your potential case, one with a demonstrated skill and reputation in this complex area of law. Victims of medical malpractice should and do get compensated both at settlement and at trial, and successful cases can and do prevent the same medical negligence from happening to someone else. The best way to obtain this success is to obtain medical malpractice lawyers with the experience, reputation and resources to investigate and bring the case.

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