Recently in Illinois, an infant was rushed to an emergency room by his parents for incessant crying and vomiting that prevented him from nursing. The emergency room physician diagnosed the infant with a gastrointestinal colic and sent the family home with instructions on how to cope with the colic. The next day, the infant suffered a painful death, due to a rare heart defect that the doctor could have discovered by ordering a standard chest x-ray. When the infant’s parents hired Chicago medical malpractice lawyers and sued both the hospital and the emergency room physician, a jury found both defendants liable for $2,250,000.
Multi-million dollar medical malpractice verdicts beg the question of how juries arrive at such numbers. What is the just measure of punishment for a doctor’s error that can adequately compensate the loss of grieving parents? Obviously no amount of money could ever compensate parents or make them whole after the loss of a child. Even if such a number could be reached, is it really fair to make doctors liable?
In every profession or line of work, people, even licensed professionals, make mistakes. Unfortunately for medical professionals, every day mistakes can lead to medical malpractice lawsuits involving unfathomable tragedies such as brain damage, birth injuries, quadriplegia, amputations, and death.
The Illinois legal system has guidelines for striking the most appropriate balance between protecting both patients and doctors through (1) restrictions on filing cases, (2) caps on certain types of damages, and (3) comparative negligence testing.
Filing an Illinois Medical Malpractice Lawsuit
An Illinois medical malpractice lawsuit, in most instances, needs to be filed within a 2 year statute of limitations period from the date that malpractice could have been reasonably discovered, but no more than 4 years from the date of treatment. This means that some patients are given a slightly extended period of time after medical treatment until they reasonably discover medical malpractice.
For instance, when a woman undergoes surgery to prevent future pregnancies and winds up pregnant three years later, she still has one year to file a lawsuit, because she could not have reasonably discovered the malpractice until she became pregnant three years after surgery. Despite the extension given for the discovery of malpractice, all cases are subject to a four year limitation. Thus, if the woman became pregnant 5 years later, she would no longer be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.
The Illinois medical malpractice statute of limitations exists to protect doctors against stale claims. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to formulate a defense against acts committed in the past. Furthermore, the statute of limitations exists so that doctors are not forced to worry about their mistakes for an unlimited amount of time. The statute of limitations can be longer in cases involving minors or shorter against government entities.
Once it is established that a case satisfies the statute of limitations, a lawsuit can only be filed if a patient’s medical malpractice lawyer finds an expert who is willing to testify about a breach of standard care.
In every medical malpractice lawsuit, the overarching question is whether a doctor breached the standard of care in his or her field of practice. Standard care requirements are different for each area of medicine so medical malpractice expert witnesses must be doctors who practice in the area of medicine involved in a particular lawsuit. In order to show that there has been a breach of the standard care in a medical field, there must be an expert witness who is willing to testify for the plaintiff and say that the doctor in question failed to meet the standard of care requirements in the industry. Without expert testimony, medical malpractice cases cannot even be filed.
Illinois Medical Malpractice Damages
There are three types of damages that are generally available in Illinois law: economic damages, non-economic damages and punitive damages. As the name suggests, punitive damages are used as a form of punishment, and are not available in medical malpractice. The reasoning behind no punitive damages is that medical malpractice is a form of negligence, which is a non-intentional tort that society generally does not punish.
Economic damages include all of the medical bills and expenses that arise from malpractice, which can range from hospital bills, prescriptions and transportation costs involved. There are no caps, or limitations to the amount of medical malpractice economic damages that juries can award. Anything that a patient is billed for as a result of malpractice is an economic damage that doctors and hospitals are liable for.
Non-economic damages involve payment for all of the intangible expenses that patents endure, such as pain and suffering or even loss of relationships. As of August of 2005, non-economic damages are limited to $500,000.00 against individual doctors and $1,000,000.00 against hospitals. Thus, an Illinois jury’s decision for the total amount of damages owed to a patient is limited to the medical costs associated with the malpractice, plus a maximum of $1.5 million for non-economic damages.
Comparative Negligence in Illinois Medical Malpractice
Once a conclusion is reached for the amount of damages that were incurred by a patient, juries are asked to deduct from those damages a percentage of the patient’s own comparative fault. Damages can be deducted as far as 50%, but once a patient’s fault is recognized as more than half, damages for the plaintiff are removed entirely.
The 50/50 comparative negligence test in Illinois only allows medical malpractice recovery against doctors when patients are 50% or less at fault. For example, if a patient is released from a hospital, and instructed by a doctor not to drive for one week while on antibiotics, but ignores the instructions, crashes a car and is severely injured, a jury would probably find that although the antibiotic may have caused the accident, the patient was more than 50% at fault for ignoring the doctor’s instructions, and thus barred from recovery against the doctor who ordered the prescription.
On the other hand, in closer cases, juries can determine that patients are less than 50% at fault. In a recent case, a patient was rushed to a hospital for severe allergies that were aggravated by his smoking habits. The patient died when doctors administered a food supplement through his feeding tube that contained milk, which he was also allergic to. The jury found that the patient was 38% at fault, because it was his smoking that contributed to the patient’s weakened condition that led to his death. Because the patient was less than 50% at fault, doctors were responsible for paying the patient’s estate according to their share of the blame, which was 62%.
The calculation of damages, and comparative negligence along with restrictions such as the statute of limitations and requirements of expert testimony regarding standard care helps juries arrive at fair verdicts in extremely difficult cases. The downside to the extremely involved process is that it results in long lawsuits that can last for years and involve expensive legal fees. Nevertheless, the Illinois legal system strives to strike an appropriate balance between protecting both patients and doctors.