Proving Medical Negligence

A Pennsylvania man sued his doctors and his hospital for medical malpractice after he suffered what he said was an inexplicable injury during surgery that his doctors performed to correct a condition that rendered the man’s arms cold and paralyzed on an intermittent basis. The man claimed that he suffered a serious chemical burn to the left side of his shoulder during the surgery.

The man was not able to explain how or why he suffered the chemical burn, and so he turned to a concept in Pennsylvania negligence law known as “res ipsa loquitur” to prove his case. Literally translated, res ipsa loquitur means “the thing speaks for itself.”

The legal concept of res ipsa loquitur is that an injured person can prove negligence if he or she has suffered an injury that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence, and no other responsible causes explain the injury. The man argued that anyone who comes out of surgery with a major chemical burn has to have been treated negligently because no other cause can explain such an injury. However, he lost his claim because the experts in the case hotly disputed whether he even had a chemical burn.

The man’s expert diagnosed his injury as a chemical burn that was caused by his lying in a pool of antiseptic solution for an extended period of time during the surgery. But the expert who testified for the doctors and the hospital concluded that the man did not suffer any burns at all; instead, the expert testified that the man had a serious outbreak of shingles, caused by the herpes virus. The pattern of the blisters and lesions was consistent with the random pattern of a shingles outbreak, according to the expert, and not with the “flooding” pattern of a chemical burn.

The court dismissed the man’s claims. Because he was unable to prove that he actually was left lying in a pool of antiseptic liquid during the surgery, he had no direct proof of negligence. And since the hospital’s expert disagreed with the nature of the injury, the court concluded that the man did not have a res ipsa loquitur case. Negligence is presumed under the res ipsa loquitur theory only where there is no other plausible explanation for the injury.

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