How does a Preexisting Condition Affect a Medical Malpractice Claim in New Jersey?
Preexisting conditions are those illnesses, injuries, or conditions that a person had before seeing the doctor for another issue. Although a relatively common defense used by doctors, hospitals, and other medical professionals and facilities to justify adverse events, preexisting conditions are not always an effective defense against medical malpractice claims. In truth, medical professionals must perform to a high standard of professionalism regarding their patients, no matter how they arrive at their office, clinic, hospital, or other medical facility.
The fundamental examination in a medical malpractice action becomes whether the medical professional’s decisions or actions fell below an acceptable standard of competency, meaning what a similarly situated medical professional would reasonably do if they were in the defendant’s shoes. Essentially, a doctor’s diagnosis or treatment must live up to the standards expected from a professional with like training and expertise in a given medical specialty. Not meeting that standard may be negligence.
A doctor has a duty to prescribe, advise, and treat an individual under their care with their preexisting conditions in mind.
For example, if a doctor prescribes an individual medication that they should know the person is allergic to, they may be responsible for the subsequent emergency room visit after a near-fatal respiratory failure incident. Thereafter, the person blames the doctor for not checking their medical history, but the physician blames the patient’s preexisting asthma as the real culprit for the respiratory failure. Despite their protests, the doctor should have gathered and reviewed their patient’s medical history, including asthma, before determining the appropriate course of action.
In another scenario of pre-existing conditions, perhaps a person is diagnosed with heart disease before going into surgery. Given the situation, a surgeon must consider that fact in recommending treatment and preparation for treatment.
In law, a medical malpractice claim condenses into a singular concept: a breach of duty, owed to the victim, when the breach caused damages. Causation is critical.
Even if a doctor or anesthesiologist made a mistake during surgery, the error must have caused the person’s injury or complications. If the error did not cause the individual’s heart attack, brain damage, or other severe health conditions following surgery, the medical providers might not be responsible for the injuries. In law, that causal link is called proximate cause. Typically, proximate cause is best understood as the patient would not have suffered harm but for the medical provider’s negligence.
In New Jersey, proximate cause differs in the case of a preexisting condition.
Through case law, the New Jersey Supreme Court established a modified standard of proximate cause that applies in specific types of medical negligence cases in which the plaintiff had a preexisting condition which, in and of itself increased the risk of harm. The plaintiff bringing a lawsuit for medical negligence does not have to prove that the doctor’s negligence alone caused injuries and damages. However, together with the preexisting condition, the negligence caused or significantly contributed to the injury. New Jersey case law specifies that professional negligence must be a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm in order to satisfy the element of proximate causation in a medical malpractice claim.
Regardless of the facts of each case, a plaintiff cannot prove malpractice without causation. As a result, if you sue a medical provider for malpractice, you must prove the doctor’s inexcusable error or inadequate care, not exclusively your preexisting condition, caused your new injury, deterioration, or otherwise poor recovery. Clearly, a preexisting condition does not cause medical errors. A doctor treats the person before them, including the diseases they come with to their doctor visit. The preexisting condition is just one reason a provider makes sure they have the patient’s entire medical history before diagnosing and treating them. It is the responsibility of the treating physician not to worsen the individual seeking the help for health-related concerns.
On the reverse side of the coin, a doctor cannot cure everyone. If a condition does not improve or becomes worse despite the doctor making no errors and operating in accordance with acceptable standards, the person being treated most likely does not have a valid claim for medical malpractice. The distinction is important because doctors see sick people most often. As such, if an ill patient comes into an office or hospital, and a doctor makes them sicker or increases their risk of harm by their negligence, the patient must show that the doctor’s malpractice contributed significantly to the injury.
A preexisting condition may be a valid defense in some cases.
A preexisting condition matters most when a medical procedure or treatment would not have changed the outcome. In other words, no matter what a doctor did, the result would be the same due to the preexisting condition. In some cases, conditions like asthma, epilepsy, allergies, congenital disabilities, unhealed injuries, brain injuries, and smoking may be the overriding cause of an individual’s health problems and resulting complications, regardless of the medical professional’s efforts.
Preexisting conditions can impact damages.
When determining damages to a medical malpractice plaintiff with preexisting medical conditions, New Jersey allows the defendant to present evidence to the jury of how much harm they contributed to the plaintiff’s outcome. Therefore, a jury may consider the percentage of injury attributed to negligence, as opposed to the preexisting condition. The apportionment determines how much the defendant must pay for the plaintiff’s total damages. Thus, if a doctor’s negligence is 60% responsible for an individual’s injury, compared to the preexisting condition’s contribution to the injury, the doctor only pays 60% of the damages, including their medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, and costs of future rehabilitation and medical care, among other damages.
Why You Need a Medical Malpractice Attorney to Sue with a Preexisting Condition
You had a heart attack on the operating table and almost lost your life. Your recovery has been slow, and you have needed assistance to help you do daily activities and get to your many medical appointments. You wonder if the surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurse, or other professional may have made an error during the surgery. However, your surgeon who performed the procedure told you the heart attack was probably due to a preexisting condition. If you suspect a medical professional’s negligence caused you harm, you should strongly consider seeking a review of your case and further advice from a knowledgeable medical malpractice lawyer.
A medical malpractice attorney is necessary in a medical malpractice case to handle many complex tasks, especially for a medical malpractice action with preexisting conditions. Assigning percentages of fault, establishing a duty, and proving causation are all complicated evidentiary issues best left to a legal professional.
Consult with a New Jersey medical malpractice lawyer if you have preexisting medical conditions and suffered harm from a medical professional’s negligence.
As highly experienced attorneys who concentrate on medical malpractice litigation in New Jersey, we at Fronzuto Law Group often encounter defendants who claim preexisting conditions as a defense against medical malpractice. We can assist with conducting a comprehensive investigation of your case, determining your foundation for an actionable claim, and adeptly navigating the advanced challenges of proving malpractice in the case of a preexisting condition. With decades of experience and millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements recovered throughout New Jersey, our lawyers are prepared to tackle your medical malpractice case with the attention and skill required to obtain your just compensation.