Articles Posted in Medical Malpractice

Most South Carolina medical malpractice lawsuits revolve around the issues of whether the defendant health care provider breached the applicable standard of care and, if so, the amount of compensation due to the victim.However, sometimes there are other issues, such as in a recent case in which the malpractice action was settled, but a dispute arose as to who was entitled to share in the monetary proceeds paid by the allegedly negligent medical providers.

Facts of the Case

In a recently decided appellate case, the plaintiff was the mother of a minor child who died an hour after she was born. The mother brought a wrongful death and survival action against the child’s medical providers, seeking damages for medical malpractice. The mother named the defendant and another man (who was later dismissed from the case) as putative fathers. After the lawsuit was settled, the mother petitioned the trial court to deny the defendant any interest in the wrongful death proceeds, relying on South Carolina Code § 15-51-40. The probate court agreed with the mother that the defendant had failed to provide reasonable support and was thus not entitled to share in the proceeds of the settlement.

Healthcare providers like nursing homes and hospitals generally prefer to arbitrate, rather than litigate, South Carolina medical malpractice claims.

There are several reasons for this, including the likelihood that the damages award paid out to a particular medical malpractice victim (or his or her family, if the patient died) will be substantially lower if an arbitrator – rather than a jury – considers the issues in the case.

Of course, not every agreement to arbitrate is legally enforceable. While many such agreements are upheld by the courts, some are declared unenforceable.

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In recent years, there has been a trend toward alternative dispute resolution, such as arbitration, in some kinds of cases, including South Carolina nursing home abuse cases.

It is important to note that the reason for this trend is not because injured individuals or the families of those who have suffered a wrongful death have willingly and knowingly decided that they would rather have their legal disputes resolved by an arbitrator rather than by a judge and jury. Instead, many would-be defendants have managed to sneak arbitration clauses into the mounds of documents that must be signed at certain health care facilities. Fortunately, not all such alleged “agreements” are enforceable by the courts.

Facts of the Case

Those who are confined to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are extremely vulnerable. While it would be nice to believe that these individuals are given the care and treatment that they need and deserve, this is not always so.

Unfortunately, South Carolina nursing home negligence and medical malpractice lawsuits are so commonplace as to barely raise an eyebrow these days. While such litigation cannot undo the harm that was done, sizable settlements and jury verdicts can send a powerful message – a message that may result in better care for those in such facilities in the future.

Facts of the Case

Although there are several deadlines that may apply in South Carolina medical malpractice lawsuits, one of the most important is the statute of limitations. Claims not filed within the limitations period are usually dismissed, regardless of the merits of the plaintiff’s case. While there are a few exceptions, only cases that fit the very narrow exceptions set forth by statute and case law will survive a late-filed complaint.

Another important deadline to note is the statute of repose. While the statute of limitations gives an injured person a certain amount of time to seek legal relief following the discovery of an act of malpractice, the statute of repose puts a limit on the time that a plaintiff has to file suit after the actual act of negligence, regardless of when the plaintiff discovered the mistake.

Facts of the Case

South Carolina medical malpractice cases can arise in a number of contexts, including not only obvious mistakes, such as leaving an instrument inside a patient’s body or surgically removing the wrong organ, but also more complicated situations, such as a failure to make a timely diagnosis of lung cancer.

While the physician may not have caused the underlying medical condition (such as cancer), if it can be said that his or her failure to make a diagnosis in accordance with the applicable standard of care caused ultimate harm to a patient, there is a possibility that a medical malpractice claim may lie against the doctor.

Of course, each case is fact-specific, and there must be competent evidence from expert witnesses – other doctors – to explain to the jury exactly what should have happened, what went wrong, and how the error ultimately affected the patient. Without expert testimony, most medical malpractice cases fail regardless of how seriously the patient was injured (or even if he or she passed away due to the alleged mistake).

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When someone is a victim of medical malpractice, he or she may incur substantial medical expenses because of his or her injuries. When the injured person is a minor child, it is usually the parent who bears the financial responsibility for those expenses. The state’s highest court entertained a South Carolina medical malpractice case earlier this month in which the issue was whether a minor had the right to sue for his or her medical expenses or whether only a parent had that right.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case under consideration by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the plaintiff was the mother of a minor child who allegedly suffered an injury during her birth in 2007. The mother, acting as the child’s next friend, brought two separate medical malpractice actions in York County, one in 2009 against the doctor and medical group and one in 2012 against the medical center.  The lawsuits were consolidated.

The fact is that most civil lawsuits are settled outside court. Of those that are tried, only a small percentage are appealed. Fewer still are appealed past the intermediate court of appeals and on to the state’s highest court. Still, there are a few cases that make it all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court, only to be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

When this happens, there are several rules that come into play regarding the effect that the court’s previous resolution of certain issues will have on the next round of litigation.

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Several months ago, we told you about a federal court of appeals’ decision in a case in which a medical malpractice insurance company sought a declaratory judgment as to its responsibility to cover certain acts of malpractice after it was discovered that a fake nursing home “doctor” had illegally assumed the identity of a physician who was out of the country.

In that decision, the appellate court held that the principles of equity demanded that there be coverage for the innocent co-insureds under the medical malpractice policy that was in place during the impostor’s time at the nursing home.

Now, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division, has issued a new opinion in a related matter.

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Civil claims not asserted in a timely fashion face dismissal on procedural grounds, regardless of the merits of the underlying complaint. The time period that a claimant has to assert his or her rights varies from case to case, depending upon the state in which the claim arose and the nature of the complaint.

In South Carolina, some claims (including medical malpractice claims) are governed by both a statute of limitations and a statute of repose. Essentially, the statute of repose allows additional time in situations in which the plaintiff does not discover the act of malpractice within the time otherwise allowed by the statute of limitations, but it still puts an outer window on the period for filing suit.

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