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Defining Factors of a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit 

Medical professionals owe high standards of care to their patients. Falling short of these standards can cause significant patient harm and even death. A patient in Pennsylvania may have grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit if he or she can meet the burden of proof by establishing certain elements.

Doctors Performing a Surgery

Professional Standard of Care Owed

The first key element in a medical malpractice lawsuit is that the defendant (at-fault party) owed a professional duty or standard of care to the plaintiff (injured party or claimant). A professional duty in the medical field is established by a doctor-patient relationship. The defendant must have been acting as the plaintiff’s health care provider at the time of the act of malpractice; for example, a friend who is a doctor giving advice at a social event would not meet this element of proof.

Breach of the Standard of Care

The second factor in a medical malpractice claim is a breach or violation of the professional standard of care. There must be evidence showing that the defendant fell short of the duty of care required by him or her as the plaintiff’s health care provider. A breach of duty can refer to many acts of malpractice, including a misdiagnosis, surgical error, medication error, birth injury or failure to treat. If a reasonable and prudent medical provider in similar circumstances would have acted differently and prevented the harm caused to the plaintiff, the defendant may be guilty of a breach of the standard of care.

Under Pennsylvania law, the standard of care must be proven with expert testimony.  For example, if a lawsuit claims that a patient’s cardiologist violated the standard of care owed to that patient by failing to order a particular test, an expert cardiologist must testify on behalf of the patient that the standard of care required the defendant cardiologist to order that test.

Medical literature is also very important evidence in medical malpractice cases on the subject of standard of care.


Causation is often the most difficult element to prove in a medical malpractice lawsuit. This factor requires proof that the defendant’s breach of the standard of care was a cause of the plaintiff’s injury or harm or increased the risk of harm to the plaintiff.

Causation can be especially difficult to prove in a medical malpractice case, as the harm suffered may be related to a pre-existing injury or illness. For example, one type of medical malpractice claim is delayed diagnosis of cancer.  In these cases, the disease that causes the plaintiff’s injury (or, in some cases, death) is cancer, but the lawsuit claims that a health care provider’s malpractice caused a delay in diagnosis of the cancer.

In this type of case, the plaintiff’s attorney can prove causation by showing that, had the cancer been diagnosed sooner, the plaintiff would have had a better prognosis for survival.  Again, Pennsylvania law requires that this be proven with expert testimony. In the delayed diagnosis of cancer example, the plaintiff would need to have a causation opinion from an oncologist with experience treating that type of cancer.

Resulting Damages

The fourth and final defining factor of a medical malpractice lawsuit is damages. Damages has a double meaning in personal injury law; it refers to the losses that a victim suffered as well as the financial compensation that may be available. The victim must show that he or she suffered specific damages because of the act of malpractice. These may include bodily injuries, medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

What Is the Burden of Proof?

In law, the burden of proof refers to the standard that the party seeking to prove a fact in court must satisfy to have the fact legally established. In a personal injury claim, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence, and it rests with the plaintiff or filing party. This means it is the plaintiff’s burden to establish that what he or she is claiming is more likely to be true or not true. While this is lower than the burden of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal case, it can still be difficult to meet and requires convincing evidence.

Fulfilling the burden of proof in a medical malpractice lawsuit requires evidence in the form of medical expert testimony. A medical expert is someone with years of experience in a field comparable to that of the defendant who can give an expert opinion as to whether or not the defendant met the standards of care. An experienced Philadelphia medical malpractice attorney can help you establish the elements of your case and meet the burden of proof with compelling evidence, including hiring experts who are at the top of their field.