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When the Thing Speaks for Itself: Res Ipsa Loquitur and Medical Malpractice

Medical MalpracticeMost of the time, medical malpractice is characterized as a complex field, wherein the legal cases will also be complex, hinging on tiny details. However, in some situations, a medical professional has made a mistake so egregious as to be obvious to anyone that their conduct caused harm to the patient. Paradoxically, this can cause confusion in many plaintiffs; without a case to prove, per se, there seems to be nothing else to do. However, the question of damages still must be addressed.

What is Res Ipsa Loquitur?

The Latin term ‘res ipsa loquitur,’ often referred to as just ‘res ipsa,’ is used in legal circles as a term of art, and it translates roughly to “the thing speaks for itself.” In other words, if you can invoke the doctrine of res ipsa in your case, the harm done is so obvious that no further discussion or proof is really required. If one sees a man hold up a gun, point it at someone else, and hears sounds that correspond to muzzle flashes as the other person falls down, it does not require further proof to conclude that the man has shot someone.

Some states do not allow this doctrine in medical malpractice cases, with the rationale that medicine is a discipline almost totally foreign to the average layman. California, however, does allow this, though the instructions to juries in these situations are quite specific. The applicable jury instructions state that three things must be proven in order for a finding of res ipsa loquitur to be appropriate: (1) that the plaintiff’s harm would not normally have occurred unless “someone” was negligent; (2) that the injury happened while plaintiff was under the control or care of defendant; and (3) plaintiff’s voluntary actions did not contribute to the harm. If all three of these are true, a jury may (but does not necessarily have to) find that defendant caused plaintiff’s harm.

The Issue of Damages

Once the issue of liability is determined, the trial is still not over; the issue of damages must be addressed. In California, this can be a laborious process, as the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) still governs the amount of damages that can be awarded in medical malpractice cases. The amount of actual (also called economic) damages for the harm you have suffered, is not capped, but under MICRA, there is a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. This covers damages awarded for intangible harm such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium, or loss of enjoyment of life.

MICRA can greatly complicate the lives of patients who have suffered clear harm as a result of a doctor’s actions. With a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, many plaintiffs are left in precarious situations even if they win in court - in many cases, that amount is simply insufficient to make the necessary adjustments to the new lifestyle required. For example, if someone is left paraplegic due to a doctor’s negligence during surgery, they may require ramps added to their home; they may need to hire additional help, or pay for expensive prescriptions. Most patients will go through $250,000 very quickly, even if their case was uncomplicated enough to win via res ipsa loquitur.

Ask an Attorney for Help

Even if you have what you believe to be a clear-cut case of medical malpractice, all the attendant legal work can turn a difficult situation into something confusing and complex. Contacting an experienced attorney can make a world of difference. The passionate San Jose medical malpractice attorneys at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, L.L.P. are fighters who will do our best to receive an outcome in your case that is fair and equitable. Contact us today to set up an appointment. We serve San Jose, the Bay Area, and the counties of Alameda, Monterey, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Benito.

Client Reviews
My experience with Attorney Brad Corsiglia during my recent medical malpractice case was nothing short of amazing given the very stressful circumstances. I was fortunate to find Brad highly recommended from a mutual contact and from the very beginning of the process, Brad was truly engaged and knowledgeable in understanding my case and providing input on what avenues were available to me. Michelle M.