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What Are the 4 Elements That Must Be Proven in a Case of Malpractice?

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Every year, patients suffer serious injuries due to the negligence of health care practitioners and hospitals. Not all adverse health outcomes are medical malpractice, but if four key elements exist, an injured patient may have grounds to file a lawsuit in New Mexico. It is up to the plaintiff or plaintiff’s medical malpractice attorney to prove these elements as more likely to be true than not true for a successful claim.

Professional Standard of Care

The first element is a duty of care, meaning a legal or ethical responsibility to act with reasonable care according to the situation. All physicians and health care providers have a duty to treat patients according to high standards of care. In a medical malpractice claim, it must be shown that the accused party (the defendant) owed an official duty of care to the injured party or plaintiff. A doctor-patient relationship must have existed at the time of the alleged act of malpractice.

The duties of care assigned to the defendant will depend on his or her profession and the role the defendant played in the patient’s medical care. If the patient was pregnant, for example, her obstetrician or gynecologist would have an obligation to correctly monitor the pregnancy, diagnose any maternal or fetal conditions, and deliver the baby with an appropriate level of care. Different types of medical providers owe various duties or standards of care to their patients based on what is acceptable in the medical industry.

Breach of the Standard of Care

The second element that must be proven in a medical malpractice claim is a dereliction of the duty of care, also known as a breach of duty. This can refer to any act or omission by the defendant that a reasonable and prudent medical professional would not have committed in the same circumstances. Any act of negligence, carelessness, recklessness, wrongdoing or default could constitute a breach of the standard of care.

Common examples include:


Proving a breach of duty in a medical malpractice claim often requires testimony from a medical expert. A medical expert is a professional with a high amount of education or experience in a practice similar to the defendant, who can comment on the defendant’s actions and whether they fulfilled the accepted standards of care based on the situation. A jury can use a medical expert’s testimony to determine if the defendant was derelict, or remiss, in fulfilling the duty of care.

Causation for the Patient’s Injury or Death

The third element necessary is causation, meaning a causal connection between the defendant’s breach of the duty of care and the plaintiff’s injury, illness or death. For a defendant to be found liable in a medical malpractice claim, there must be evidence directly linking the defendant’s breach of the medical standard of care to the patient’s harm.

The but-for test is often used to establish causation: it must be proven with at least a 51 percent certainty that the patient’s injuries would not exist but for the defendant’s dereliction of the duty of care. If a patient most likely would have experienced the same medical outcome regardless of the defendant’s breach of duty, the defendant may not be held liable.

Damages Suffered

The fourth and final element of proof in a medical malpractice case is damages. This refers to specific and compensable losses suffered by the plaintiff because of the defendant’s negligent act or omission. Damages can refer to injuries or a poor health outcome, medical care, losses of income, lost capacity to earn, disability, pain and suffering, and more. Evidence of these losses often comes in the form of medical records, hospital bills and wage documents.

To determine if you have the elements of a malpractice claim, contact our attorneys for a free consultation in New Mexico.