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Medical malpractice is a serious issue affecting thousands of people in California annually. According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, California had over 6,000 medical malpractice claims in 2019 alone.

Medical professionals have a duty of care to their patients, and when they fail to uphold that duty, it can result in serious injuries, long-term disabilities, and even death. California has enacted several laws to protect patients and hold healthcare providers accountable for their actions. However, understanding these laws and how they apply in a medical malpractice case can take time and effort. 

This article will examine California's medical malpractice laws and how they protect patients harmed by medical professionals. In addition, we will explore the requirements for filing a claim, the types of damages that can be recovered, and the legal resources that are readily available for victims. Whether you're a victim of medical malpractice or simply interested in learning more about this area of law, this article will provide valuable insights and information.

Pre-suit Requirements in California

Before a medical malpractice lawsuit can be filed in California, plaintiffs must follow specific pre-suit requirements. These requirements are designed to encourage early settlement and reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. 

  • Notice of intent to sue: Before filing a lawsuit, the plaintiff must provide written notice to each healthcare provider that they intend to sue. This notice must include a statement of the legal basis for the claim, including the facts and circumstances of the alleged malpractice.

  • Certificate of merit: Along with the notice of intent to sue, the plaintiff must provide a certificate of merit from a qualified medical expert. This certificate must attest that the expert has reviewed the medical records and believes there is a reasonable basis for the malpractice claim.

  • 90-day waiting period: After the notice of intent to sue and the certificate of merit has been provided, the defendant’s healthcare provider has 90 days to evaluate the claim and attempt to settle the case. During this time, the defendant may request additional medical records and ask the plaintiff to undergo a medical examination.

The plaintiff's lawsuit may be dismissed if the pre-suit requirements are not followed properly. Therefore, consulting with a qualified attorney is essential to ensure all requirements are met before filing a medical malpractice lawsuit in California.

Medical Expert Testimony Requirements in California

In California, plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits must provide expert testimony from a qualified medical professional to support their claims. This requirement ensures that only meritorious claims proceed to trial and protects healthcare providers from frivolous lawsuits.

Here are the critical elements of California’s medical expert testimony requirements:

  • Qualifications: The medical expert witness must be licensed to practice medicine in California and have expertise in the same or similar field as the defendant. The expert must have practiced in the relevant field within five years.

  • Standard of care: The witness must provide an opinion on the standard of care that applies to the defendant. They must explain what a reasonable healthcare provider would have done under the same circumstances and whether the defendant's actions met that standard.

  • Causation: The medical expert must also provide an opinion on causation, which means that the defendant’s actions caused the plaintiff’s injuries. The expert must explain how the defendant’s actions deviated from the standard of care and how that deviation caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

While the expert witness's testimony is a crucial part of the plaintiff's case and can make or break the lawsuit's outcome, it's important to note that the expert's opinion is not the final word in a medical malpractice lawsuit. The judge or jury will ultimately decide whether the defendant breached the standard of care and whether that breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

Vicarious Liability in California

Vicarious liability in California is a legal principle that holds an employer or other party responsible for the actions of their employees or agents. In the context of medical malpractice lawsuits, vicarious liability may apply to hospitals, clinics, or other healthcare organizations that employ or contract with healthcare providers. For example, suppose a nurse or doctor employed by a hospital commits an act of medical malpractice while treating a patient. In that case, the hospital may be held vicariously liable for the harm caused by the employee's action.

However, it's important to note that vicarious liability is not automatic in California. To hold an employer vicariously liable, the plaintiff must show that the employee acted within the scope of their employment when the malpractice occurred. This means that the employee's actions must have been related to their job duties or otherwise authorized by the employer.

California’s Comparative Fault Law

Under California’s comparative fault law, a plaintiff's recovery in a medical malpractice lawsuit may be reduced if they were partially responsible for their injuries. In other words, if the plaintiff's negligence contributed to their injuries, the damages awarded could be reduced in proportion to the percentage of fault assigned to the plaintiff.

For example, suppose a patient sues a healthcare provider for medical malpractice, and the jury determines that the healthcare provider was 80% at fault for the patient's injuries, but the patient was 20% at fault due to their actions. In that case, the damages awarded to the patient will be reduced by 20%. 

Unlike other states, it is still possible for the plaintiff to recover damages in California even if they were partially at fault for their injuries. However, the damages will be reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the plaintiff.

California’s Mandatory Arbitration Law

Under California’s mandatory arbitration law, parties in a medical malpractice case may be required to participate in mandatory arbitration before going to trial. This process is an alternative to a traditional court trial, where a neutral third-party arbitrator hears the case and makes a binding decision. The arbitrator is typically a retired judge or an experienced attorney with expertise in medical malpractice cases. The hearing is often held in a private office or conference room, and the rules of evidence and procedure are less formal than in a traditional court trial.

In California, the mandatory arbitration law applies to medical malpractice cases where the damages are less than $250,000. The law was enacted to help reduce the backlog of medical malpractice cases in the court system and to provide a more streamlined and efficient process for resolving these cases.

Additionally, parties in a medical malpractice case can agree to participate in voluntary arbitration or mediation outside the mandatory arbitration process. This can allow the parties to reach a settlement or resolution of the claim without going to trial.

California Medical Malpractice Liability Insurance Requirements

In California, most healthcare providers licensed by the state are not required to carry medical malpractice liability insurance or demonstrate proof of financial responsibility. However, physicians who practice in outpatient surgery settings must carry liability insurance. 

While healthcare providers aren't legally mandated to carry medical malpractice liability insurance under California law, most providers have a minimum policy of $1 million per claim and $3 million annual aggregate. In addition, many healthcare providers carry higher amounts of coverage to protect themselves against lawsuits. 

Healthcare providers employed by hospitals or other healthcare organizations may be covered under their employer's medical malpractice liability insurance policy. However, healthcare providers who are self-employed or work for small practices may choose to obtain their own medical malpractice liability insurance policy.

How Much Can Someone Sue For Medical Malpractice in California?

While there is no specific limit on the number of damages a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit, there are limits on the amount of non-economic damages that a plaintiff can recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit against healthcare providers. 

Non-economic damages do not have a specific monetary value and usually include pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. For example, in California, the maximum non-economic damages a plaintiff can recover is $250,000 for non-fatal medical malpractice claims and $500,000 for fatal medical malpractice claims.

On the other hand, there is no limit on the number of economic damages a plaintiff can recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Economic damages include medical expenses, lost wages, and future earning capacity, and they are calculated based on the actual financial losses that the plaintiff suffered due to the medical malpractice.

What Is the Statute of Limitations in California for Medical Malpractice?

In California, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice is generally three years from the date of the injury or one year from the date the injury was discovered or should have been discovered through reasonable diligence — whichever occurs first. 

However, some exceptions and particular circumstances can affect that statute of limitations, such as cases involving minors or cases where the medical provider fraudulently concealed the malpractice. In these instances, the statute of limitations may be tolled to provide the victim more time to file a lawsuit.

The statute of limitations for medical malpractice lawsuits can be complex and may vary depending on the circumstances of the case. Therefore, it's essential to consult with an experienced attorney in California who can advise you on the applicable statute of limitations and any exceptions that may apply.

Legal Resources for Medical Malpractice Victims in California

For California medical malpractice victims, navigating the legal system can be intimidating. Fortunately, several legal resources are available to help victims pursue justice and compensation. From government agencies to helpful websites, these resources provide guidance, support, and access to legal services. The following is a list of some of the most important legal resources available to victims of medical malpractice in California.

California Medical Board

The California Medical Board is responsible for protecting patients by ensuring that licensed physicians comply with the state's medical practice laws and regulations. While the board does not directly represent victims of medical malpractice, it can be a valuable legal resource for those harmed by medical negligence. 

The California Medical Board investigates complaints against licensed physicians in the state, which includes allegations of medical malpractice. Upon receiving a complaint, the board investigates to determine if there is evidence of wrongdoing. If the board concludes that a physician has violated California's medical practice laws and regulations, it may take disciplinary action, such as revoking or suspending their license or imposing practice restrictions. Such disciplinary action can serve as evidence of the physician's misconduct and benefit victims of medical malpractice seeking legal recourse.

California Courts

The California Courts website provides a wealth of information on the California court system, including the types of courts, procedures, and rules that apply to civil cases such as medical malpractice claims. In addition, victims can access court forms and documents, as well as information on how to find and work with an attorney.

Additionally, the website offers a searchable database of Court opinions and case law, which can help victims and their legal teams understand how courts have interpreted similar cases in the past. This information can be particularly useful in building a case and preparing a trial. The website also provides information on alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, which can be a less expensive and time-consuming option than going to trial.

California Department of Consumer Affairs

The California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) oversees boards and bureaus, such as the Medical Board of California, which investigates and disciplines physicians who violate medical practice laws and regulations. Additionally, the DCA’s website provides information and resources for consumers, which include how to file complaints, find an attorney, and understand the legal process. It also features a database of licensed professionals, including physicians, for research purposes. Lastly, the DCA’s Office of Patient Advocate assists patients and families in navigating the healthcare system and resolving disputes with healthcare providers.

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