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Can You Sue a Chiropractor for Medical Malpractice?

If a doctor makes an error that causes an injury, the injury victim can file a medical malpractice lawsuit. What happens when a chiropractor makes a mistake and injures a patient? If a chiropractor’s error causes injury to a patient, the injury victim can file a claim for damages. A malpractice claim involving a chiropractor can be very different from injuries caused by traditional doctors. It is important to understand the differences in a chiropractor malpractice claim. 

Medical malpractice lawsuits can be complex. Chiropractor negligence cases often involve medical experts reviewing damage to the nerves, vertebrae, and spinal column. If you have questions about filing a medical malpractice claim involving a chiropractor, talk to an experienced medical malpractice law firm about your case. 

Chiropractor Negligence

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “chiropractors treat patients with health problems of the neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons.” Many people with back pain or back problems visit chiropractors for an “adjustment” or an “alignment.” to relieve pain. 

When a chiropractor acts outside the standard of practice and causes an injury, the chiropractor may have committed professional negligence. An injured patient may be able to file a malpractice claim against the chiropractor to recover damages. Damages may include medical bills, loss of income, and pain and suffering. 

Whether chiropractor negligence is medical malpractice is a complicated question. Technically, chiropractors are not practicing medicine. However, chiropractors are entrusted by patients to treat health conditions, including back pain and limited range of motion issues. An injury victim can file a lawsuit against a chiropractor for professional negligence or chiropractor malpractice.  

A claim for chiropractor negligence generally requires showing the chiropractor owed a duty of care to the patient, the chiropractor breached their duty of care, which caused an injury and harm. A breach of care generally involves demonstrating the chiropractor acted outside the standard of practice. To put it more simply, did the chiropractor do something that a reasonable chiropractor would not have done under similar circumstances?

Back Injuries Caused by Chiropractors

The spinal cord is one of the most important systems in the human body. The spinal cord is the connection between the brain and the nerves that run throughout the body. The spinal cord is responsible for everything from walking, to watching a movie, to eating food. The spinal cord is very sensitive and is surrounded by membranes and vertebrae to provide protection. The vertebrae are made up of a number of connected bones that allow for flexibility and movement, without injuring the spinal cord. 

The spinal cord runs from the brainstem to the lower back. Areas of the spinal cord are referred to based on their proximity to the vertebrae. The vertebra is made up of 33 bones, from top to bottom into the following sections: 

  • Cervical (C1 to C7)
  • Thoracic (T1 to T12)
  • Lumbar (L1 to L5)
  • Sacrum (S1 to S5)
  • Coccyx

Any damage to the spine, spinal cord, or vertebrae can cause serious damage. Spinal cord injuries can be permanent, causing paralysis, nerve damage, paraplegia, or quadriplegia. Spinal cord injuries can be caused by traumatic incidents, like a car accident or sports injury. Spinal cord injuries can also be caused by health conditions, disease, or infection. 

The most common ways a chiropractor can be responsible for a serious back injury include negligent treatment causing trauma or failure to recognize a serious condition. For example, if a chiropractor takes an x-ray and notices a mass on the spinal cord, the mass may represent a tumor or other serious health condition. A reasonable chiropractor should refer the patient to a doctor or get an expert consultation. Failure to report the suspicious mass could be the basis for a malpractice claim if the patient suffers injury caused by failure to treat the serious health condition. 

Improper treatment of a patient could also cause spinal damage. Chiropractors regularly adjust the spine. This can include pressing on the spine, rotating the neck, or twisting the patient’s back. If the chiropractor is overly aggressive in treatment, it could cause serious injury. Similarly, not all treatments are appropriate for all patients. Performing inappropriate treatment could cause damage including spinal cord injuries, vertebral artery damage, spinal cord stroke, and internal bleeding.

Filing a Chiropractor Medical Malpractice Claim

Filing a medical malpractice claim in civil court is a way to try and recover compensation for losses and damage. A lawsuit begins with filing a “complaint.” The complaint is filed by the plaintiff injury victim. The complaint lays out the basis for the claim, including a demand for damages. The complaint is then served upon any defendants. 

Defendants in a chiropractic malpractice claim are generally the chiropractors. However, defendants can also include healthcare businesses, hospitals, and other doctors. The defendants file an “answer,” which generally states they are not at fault for any negligence. This is all just the beginning of a case, which can end up taking months or years to resolve. 

After the initial filings, the case may go to discovery. Discovery is the phase in litigation where information is exchanged, including medical records, depositions, interrogatories, and expert reports. During litigation, there may be continuing pretrial motions filed, that could include trying to compel discovery, suppress evidence, or dismiss the case. 

After discovery, the case moves towards trial. In reality, most malpractice cases are settled before they go to trial. Only a small percentage of malpractice claims ever go before a jury. In general, both parties have an interest in settling the case before trial because litigation can be long and expensive. Talk to your malpractice attorney about the difference between settlement and trial and which may be better for you. 

If the case goes to trial, each side will present their case before a jury. The jury will then decide if the chiropractor was negligently responsible for the injury. The jury may also decide how much to award the injured patient in damages. 

Standard of Care

The standard of care is the generally accepted care provided to a patient under the circumstances. Chiropractors undergo similar training and education and should provide treatment that will not make a patient’s condition worse than before they went in for treatment. For example, if chiropractors are trained not to manipulate the spine in a patient under certain circumstances but a chiropractor ignores this training and causes an injury, the chiropractor may have breached the standard of care

In a negligence case, the standard of care can be evaluated with the help of experts. In a chiropractic injury claim, the plaintiff may have a chiropractic expert and a medical expert to testify in front of the jury. The purpose of these medical experts is to help the jury understand that the chiropractor accused of causing the injury deviated from standard practice in treating the patient. The experts can also show that the breach was the cause of injury in the patient and the patient suffered harm. 

Expert Witnesses

In a medical malpractice case, a medical expert may be required to review the injury victim’s claim and provide a statement of authority that there is a valid claim for malpractice. This is generally known as an affidavit of merit or certificate of merit. Experts can provide expert witness testimony for the judge and jury. Experts also provide expert reports that detail their fact-finding, evaluation, and conclusion about a breach of care and causation of damage. 

The requirements for an expert depend on the state where the claim is filed. For example, under the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence 702, “a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:

  1. The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is beyond that possessed by the average layperson;
  2. The expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; and
  3. The expert’s methodology is generally accepted in the relevant field.”

An expert can use their training, experience, and education to evaluate the facts in the case, including medical exams and review of medical records. By using generally accepted principles and methods, the expert can provide their expert opinion on the facts, which is then presented to the jury, to help the jury make a determination as to negligence and fault.  

Chiropractic Scope of Practice

According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), there are more than 70,000 registered chiropractors in the United States. Those chiropractors treat more than 35 million Americans every year. In most states, chiropractors are designated as physician-level providers, and covered by the federal Medicare program.

Chiropractors work in a variety of healthcare environments. Many chiropractors are sole practitioners, operating their own chiropractic clinic. Others work in sports therapy, massage therapy, rehabilitation facilities, and pediatric settings. Some of the job duties of a chiropractor include: 

  • Assess a patient’s medical condition
  • Perform physical examinations
  • Evaluate posture, spine, and reflexes
  • Taking x-rays
  • Provide neuromusculoskeletal therapy, including spinal column adjustments
  • Provide general healthcare and lifestyle advice on exercise, nutrition, and sleep habits

Chiropractors are not able to practice medicine like a traditional M.D. or D.O. Chiropractors generally cannot prescribe medication or perform surgery. When a chiropractor encounters a patient with serious health conditions, they should refer the patient to a doctor or other healthcare professional.  

Training and Education for Chiropractors

The training and education for a chiropractor are similar to other post-graduate degrees. Most programs have a 4-year undergraduate degree prerequisite before applying for a graduate chiropractic education program. There are more than a dozen chiropractic programs approved by the Council on Chiropractic Education. 

Most chiropractic programs require 4 years of professional study and practice, including basic sciences, clinical education, and clinical internships. 

Chiropractic training includes clinical practice supervised by a chiropractor/educator. Prospective chiropractors also have to complete the “National Boards,” which are a series of exams by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners. Chiropractors also have to meet the state requirements where they plan to practice. See the examples below: 

Maryland Chiropractors

Maryland Department of Health (MDH)
Board of Chiropractic Examiners
Metro Executive Building
4201 Patterson Avenue Suite 301
Baltimore, MD. 21215-2299

Pennsylvania Chiropractors

Pennsylvania Professional Licensing 
State Board of Chiropractic
P.O. Box 2649
Harrisburg, PA 17105-2649

Illinois Chiropractors

Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation

Division of Professional Regulation
320 W. Washington, Third Floor
Springfield, IL 62786

Washington D.C. Chiropractors

DC Department of Health, Health Regulation and Licensing Administration (HRLA)
District of Columbia Board of Chiropractic 
899 North Capitol Street, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002

Are Chiropractors Real Doctors?

Not all doctors are doctors. A doctorate in a type of education is not the same as a medical doctor. The same is true for chiropractors. Chiropractors do not have a medical degree. They have a doctorate degree in a chiropractic education program. This is similar to someone having a doctorate in philosophy or a Ph.D. in chemistry. Technically, they can be referred to as a doctor but not a medical doctor. 

Many chiropractors have a D.C. after their name. The D.C. stands for doctor of chiropractic. A doctor of chiropractic degree allows individuals to open their own chiropractic practice and act as a professional chiropractor. 

The chiropractor profession has had a turbulent history. Chiropractic comes from the Greek for “done by hand.” Chiropractic in the U.S. was established by a practitioner in Iowa in the late 1800s. Daniel David Palmer promoted his spinal manipulation techniques as a holistic alternative to traditional medicine. Palmer believed the body’s natural healing power could cure most ailments through alignment of the nervous system and joints. Also a spiritualist, magnetic healer, and anti-vaxxer, the history of the profession has been tainted by its questionable origins.  

A chiropractor in the U.S. has met the requirements of the American Chiropractic Association, including the necessary education, testing, and membership. A chiropractor has the ability to perform chiropractic techniques for patients. However, a chiropractor is not a medical doctor and cannot practice medicine.  

Taking Action Against Chiropractor Malpractice

After a back injury caused by a chiropractor, your chiropractor may actually want to try and “fix” their mistake by providing more negligent care. It may be time to stop treatment and seek out legal help so you can recover compensation for your injuries. Your chiropractor may not admit fault but they should be stopped from injuring others. Contact experienced trial attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against a negligent chiropractor. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.

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