The Evolution of Medical Negligence Claims

Whenever you entrust yourself to the care of medical professionals, you’re protected by a body of tort law that’s accumulated over the years. When deciding whether a given action, or lack of action, amounts to medical negligence, legal professionals will look at the precedents that have been set by previous cases. 

For the most part, it’s a minority of famous cases that hold disproportionate influence over the way that the law is enacted today. Let’s take a look at some of the more significant ones, and see how they’ve shaped the law over the last hundred years or so.

Bolam v Friern Hospital Management Committee 1957

This case arose at a mental health institution. The patient, Mr. Bolam, agreed to undergo electro-convulsive therapy, but since he was not sedated or restrained, he suffered injury when his body went into spasm.

This case recognised that doctors have complete power of diagnosis, and that the medical profession sets the standard by which other medical professionals are judged. You might hear talk of the ‘Bolam’ test, which is a threefold test for medical negligence. In order to demonstrate the care provided is negligent, the claimant must prove: 

  • that a duty of care was owed
  • that the defendant was in breach of that duty
  • that the claimant suffered harm as a result

Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board 2015

This case involved a diabetic pregnant woman, whose doctor did not inform her of the small chance of her baby suffering shoulder dystocia. The doctor judged that performing a caesarean section was not in the interest of the baby or the mother. When the shoulder dystocia occurred, the patient sued for medical negligence. The Supreme Court found in her favour.

This case introduced a more general duty to disclose what the risks are to the patient. 

The influence of technology

Of course, over the last few decades, entirely new kinds of evidence have been made admissible in medical negligence proceedings, including X-rays, MRIs, Ultrasounds, and Computerised Tomography. 

The legal profession is also very different than it once was, with highly specialised medical negligence lawyers offering to take on cases on a no-win, no-fee basis. These lawyers have access to extensive contact lists, so they’re able to bring in expert witnesses to make a given claim work in court. 

Medical negligence remains a very stressful process, but the situation has hugely improved over the last hundred years or so. Let’s hope that the next hundred years bring about further improvement.


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