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Can Medical Malpractice Be a Crime?

Healthcare legislation and regulation, medical malpractice decision and health care injury personal attorney concept with gavel and stethoscope isolated on blue background

Medical malpractice is typically a civil matter. It can be costly–medical malpractice suits can easily lead to verdicts in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars–but doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are not usually subject to criminal prosecution. Are there circumstances, however, where medical malpractice can be punished criminally? Are physicians ever at risk of going to prison over their provision of medical care? Below, we discuss medical malpractice and the circumstances that might give rise to criminal liability. Reach out to a dedicated California healthcare law attorney for help with healthcare compliance concerns.

What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice concerns a healthcare provider’s negligence in the rendering of services. If a healthcare provider administers services below the standard of care expected in the medical profession, and a patient is injured or killed as a result, the patient or surviving family members have a personal injury or wrongful death claim against the provider for medical malpractice. Plaintiffs can recover damages including the resulting medical costs, loss of wages, loss of future earning capacity, pain and suffering, and wrongful death. There are certain statutory limits to the amount of non-economic damages (things like pain and suffering) a medical malpractice claimant can recover.

Criminal Malpractice

Medical malpractice is typically a civil matter. That means that the injured patient and/or their family can recover monetarily from the negligent healthcare provider, and the physician may lose their medical license, but the physician is not at risk of going to prison for their actions. Under certain circumstances, however, malpractice can rise to the level of criminal culpability.

There is no specific crime of “medical malpractice.” Instead, a physician might be guilty of another crime if their conduct was so egregious as to merit criminal prosecution. That crime might be assault, battery, or manslaughter, among others. Typically, regular negligence is not sufficient for criminal prosecution. A person must have committed gross negligence, showing a reckless disregard for human life, or actual malice in order to be prosecuted for a crime.

For example, if a physician performs an invasive surgical procedure while heavily intoxicated, and the patient dies, the physician could be prosecuted for manslaughter. The theory would be similar to pursuing manslaughter charges against a drunk driver: Going into the procedure intoxicated was criminally negligent, even if the death was unintentional. A physician who entirely disregards proper standards of medical care, leading to the death of a patient, may likewise face manslaughter charges.

Additionally, certain wrongful acts that physicians can commit are more likely to give rise to criminal charges in addition to civil liability. For example:

  • Healthcare Fraud. A physician may face criminal charges for healthcare fraud if they intentionally defraud Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurers into paying for procedures that either never took place or that were unnecessary. If a patient is harmed in the process because, for example, their medical records were muddled by the addition of non-existent procedures or because they were subject to a procedure or prescription they did not need, then the physician could also face assault or manslaughter charges.
  • Unnecessary Procedures. If a physician knowingly performs unnecessary procedures, they are intentionally putting their patients at risk of injury or death. If the patient is injured or killed, the physician could be charged with battery or manslaughter in addition to healthcare fraud.
  • Intentional Harm. If a physician intentionally harms a patient, the physician is guilty of criminal battery. The fact that the intentional harm occurred during the provision of medical care does not protect the physician from criminal liability. If the patient dies, then the physician could be charged with some level of homicide (manslaughter or murder), depending on their conduct and intentions.

Call Today for Experienced Legal Help With California Healthcare Law Matters

For help with matters involving healthcare regulatory compliance, auditing, fraud defense, employment disputes, mergers and acquisitions, business disputes, licensing, or any other California healthcare law matters, contact the Law Offices of Art Kalantar in Los Angeles or California statewide at 310-773-0001.

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