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Wrongful Death and Medical Malpractice: What’s the Difference?

Every preventable death is a tragedy. If someone whom you love had their life cut short by someone else’s actions, you likely want to hold the responsible party accountable for their actions. In the US, the easiest way to do that is by pursuing a civil liability lawsuit.

There are two main types of civil liability claims that you can make regarding someone else’s death: wrongful death and medical malpractice. These two causes of action are similar but not identical. Choosing the proper claim to pursue can make all the difference in court. Keep reading to learn the difference between medical malpractice and wrongful death and how to approach these lawsuits the right way.

Death and Civil Liability

When someone dies because of another person’s actions, there are two types of legal cases that can be pursued. The justice system can file criminal charges against the perpetrator, and loved ones of the deceased can file civil suits. There’s a significant difference between the two types of cases.

Criminal cases are used to decide whether someone broke the law and what legal and punitive actions may be taken. For instance, a murder or manslaughter trial is a criminal matter. The burden of proof in criminal cases is very high. The prosecutor must convince the jury or judge that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Civil suits can be filed alongside criminal cases. A civil suit doesn’t cover whether someone broke the law. Instead, it considers whether someone’s actions led the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) to experience unjust losses. The goal of these lawsuits is to recover damages for the losses the plaintiff suffered. The burden of proof is much less because the stakes are also lower. The judge simply needs to agree that it’s more likely than not that the defendant was responsible for the plaintiff’s losses.

If you’ve lost a loved one to someone else’s actions, you have little say over criminal cases. You can press charges, but after that, the matter is out of your hands. Furthermore, you can’t receive damages from criminal trials in most cases. Instead, you should pursue a civil lawsuit like wrongful death or medical malpractice.

What Is Wrongful Death?

Wrongful death occurs when someone dies because of someone else’s neglect or willful act. Neglect consists of failing to fulfill a responsibility that would have kept the deceased safe and healthy. It can include failing to maintain safety equipment or to perform appropriate supervision. Meanwhile, a willful act can be any purposeful action that actively caused someone’s death. This includes reckless acts like drunk driving along with premeditated acts like murder.

Common subjects of wrongful death lawsuits include:

  • Police officers who killed someone
  • Car manufacturers whose vehicles had deadly flaws
  • Premises owners whose property was fatally unsafe
  • Drunk drivers who hit and killed someone
  • Childcare workers whose negligence contributed to a child’s death

Even people who have been accused of first-degree murder can also be sued for wrongful death.

What Is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is both more specific and more general. It can lead to someone’s death, but it doesn’t have to. Medical malpractice is considered an act by a medical professional that “falls below the accepted standard of professional care.”

Only healthcare professionals can commit medical malpractice. These experts are held to professional standards of care specific to their field. For instance, a crucial standard of care for surgical professionals is maintaining a sterile environment. If they use non-sterile tools or bring in non-sterile items to the operating theater, they’re breaching their standard of care and risking medical malpractice.

Other common examples of medical malpractice include:

  • Failure to diagnose conditions accurately or in a timely manner
  • Childbirth injuries to the child or mother
  • Surgical errors, such as operating on the wrong body part or performing an incorrect procedure
  • Medication errors, such as prescribing or administering the wrong medication or a drug to which you’re allergic

The Differences Between Medical Malpractice and Wrongful Death

Medical malpractice and wrongful death can be thought of as a Venn diagram. Both may or must involve death, and both can include someone’s neglect or willful action. It’s the circumstances around the death that matter.

If the death occurred because of the actions or negligence of a healthcare practitioner with a medical relationship with the deceased, the case is malpractice. If the death occurred because of the actions or negligence of someone without a medical connection with the departed, it’s just wrongful death.

You can also sue based on both medical malpractice and wrongful death claims. In fact, most medical malpractice incidents that lead to fatalities can be considered wrongful death cases.

How to Choose Your Approach to Death-Based Civil Lawsuits

If you want your lawsuit to have the best chance of success, you need to file the correct claim in the first place. Filing a wrongful death suit instead of a medical malpractice claim or vice versa can significantly reduce the likelihood that you’re awarded damages.

Furthermore, choosing the right type of action will help you select the proper defendants. For instance, many medical malpractice cases need to target the medical facility, not just the professional in question.

The basic rule of thumb is simple. Just follow the definitions listed above. However, it’s always best to get legal advice before filing one of these claims.

Honor Your Departed Loved Ones with Accountability

No one deserves to have their life cut short because of someone else’s thoughtlessness. If you’ve lost someone you love, you can hold the people responsible accountable for their actions. The first step is to schedule your consultation with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer.

Medical malpractice lawyers can identify whether your case is wrongful death, malpractice, or both. By scheduling your consultation, you’ll start the process of finding closure for your loss. Get started today to honor your departed loved one’s memory, recover your losses, and potentially protect others from suffering from the same mistakes.

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