Medical Malpractice Lawyers Face Challenges in Delayed Diagnosis Cases

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In Ontario, some medical malpractice lawyers believe two words – “but for” – are making it difficult for injured patients to access compensation for negligence causing delayed diagnosis. Last month, Law Times reported on White v. St. Joseph’s Hospital (Hamilton) a case in which the plaintiff went into septic shock due to an undiagnosed bowel leak but was unable to recover compensation for his injuries.

The “but for” test is a test in Canadian tort law that links the damages the plaintiff has incurred with the defendant’s actions. In Clements v. Clements (2012), the Supreme Court of Canada summed up the test in these words: “the test for showing causation is the but for test. The plaintiff must show on a balance of probabilities that but for the defendant’s negligent act, the injury would not have occurred.”

Medical malpractice lawyers believe this wording confuses juries and makes it extremely difficult to prove liability in cases where negligence has clearly occurred. According to Law Times, plaintiffs have lost four out of the last five delayed diagnosis cases heard in Ontario’s courts.

“’But for’ is meant to encapsulate an event that causes or contributes to the harm,” one lawyer affiliated with the White v. St. Joseph’s case told Law Times. “But juries get confused when they hear that phrase, especially when there’s more than one contributing cause and they hear only the ‘but for’ phrase.”

In White v. St. Joseph’s, the plaintiff alleged that nurses and the hospital should have noticed the bowel leak before he went into septic shock. As a result of the delayed diagnosis, the plaintiff spent an extended time in hospital, including a stay in the intensive care unit, and underwent remedial surgery. However, an expert witness at the trial testified that “most of Mr. White’s outcome was unavoidable,” and the trial judge determined that the hospital had met its standard of care.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the trial judge’s decision using the ‘but for’ test. “In other words,” the decision read, “’but for’ the alleged delay would the plaintiff have suffered the unfavourable outcome?”

The plaintiff lawyer who spoke with Law Times believes the case leaves plenty of room for confusion and prejudice in subsequent jury trials.

“Nobody says ‘But for my car’s flat tire, I’m late,’ because that’s inconsistent with plain language,” he explained. “They say, ‘I’m late because I had a flat tire,’ and courts should approach causation in the same way.”

While medical malpractice cases involving delayed diagnosis are challenging, Will Davidson LLP’s team of medical malpractice lawyer has successfully secured compensation for its clients at all levels of court. If you’ve been injured in a medical setting, reach out today to learn how we can help.

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