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Personal Injury vs. Medical Malpractice: What’s the Difference?

When you are injured in a car accident and the other driver is to blame, you would contact a personal injury lawyer. However, if you were injured because of a mistake made by your doctor, you would call a medical malpractice lawyer. Both types of cases involve a personal injury, so what is the difference?

The biggest difference between personal injury and medical malpractice is that medical malpractice involves negligent actions by a medical professional. In a personal injury case, the jury may be able to understand what caused the accident just based on their own knowledge and experience. However, in a medical malpractice case, the jury may need medical experts to explain the standards of medical care and how the error caused your injury. 

If you suffered an injury caused by someone else’s negligence and are not sure whether you have a personal injury claim or a medical malpractice lawsuit, contact an experienced personal injury and medical malpractice law firm to get answers to your questions. 

Types of Personal Injury Accidents

Medical malpractice is a type of personal injury case. There are many types of personal injury accidents, with some types requiring the help of an expert to explain to the jury how the defendant was negligent in causing the accident. Some of the most common types of personal injury accidents include: 

Negligence in Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice

Most personal injury cases involve negligence. Negligence is a legal term that refers to a breach of the duty of care that causes injury to another. Basically, if someone does something that a reasonable person would not have done and it injures someone else, that person may be considered negligent. The negligent party may be found liable for any damages caused. There are 4 elements to a negligence case, including: 

  • Duty 
  • Breach 
  • Causation 
  • Harm

Duty of Care

Everyone owes a duty to others around them. In the example of a car accident, drivers owe others on the road a duty of care to drive like a reasonable person. This duty is owed to other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists. If you are driving and act unreasonably, for example not following the rules of the road, and it results in an accident, you may be responsible for any injuries or damage. 


A breach of the duty of care is the failure to act like a reasonable person. For civil court lawsuits, the jury generally determines whether the defendant breached the duty of care. They may consider what the defendant did (or failed to do), and whether that was what a reasonable person would do. The “reasonable person” standard is not based on any specific person, just what a hypothetical reasonable person’s actions would have been. 


Causation includes cause-in-fact and proximate cause. But for the breach of duty, the patient would not have suffered the injury. Proximate cause means that the harm was reasonably foreseeable in light of the breach. For example, it is reasonably foreseeable that by running a stop sign a driver could cause an accident, injuring another driver or passenger. 


Harm is the final element. Damages can include economic damages, noneconomic damages, and punitive damages. Any property damage, physical injury, or financial loss can be evidence of harm in a personal injury case. 

Medical Malpractice Negligence Cases

Negligence is also the basis for most medical malpractice claims. There are differences in showing medical negligence compared to other personal injury cases. For example, the injury victim first has to show that the doctor owed the patient a duty of care because there was a doctor-patient relationship. Doctors owe their patients a medical duty of care so the injury victim may have to establish they were a patient of the doctor. 

Breach of the duty of care in a medical malpractice case can require specialized knowledge. How does a jury know whether a doctor deviated from the standard of care? In these cases, a medical expert can testify and provide an expert report to the jury so they can understand what the standards of care are in a given situation. The medical expert could clarify the medical standard of care based on the type of medical care, symptoms, individual situation, and the patient. 

Causation may also require expert testimony, to show how the doctor’s deviation caused the injury in fact and was a proximate cause of the patient’s injuries. Harm in a medical malpractice case generally involves physical harm, physical injuries, the need for medical treatment, medical bills, and other losses. 

Strict Liability in Personal Injury and Medical Malpractice

Personal injury and medical malpractice cases may also be based on strict liability. Strict liability allows an injury victim to recover damages even if they cannot show negligence. Strict liability is generally limited to certain types of cases, where showing a specific person was responsible may be difficult. 

Strict Liability in Personal Injury

Two of the most common types of personal injury strict liability cases involve product liability and dog bite injuries. In a product defect lawsuit, the injury may not know who was responsible for the defective product, only that they bought the product, used as could be anticipated, and it caused an injury. Product defect claims generally involve a manufacturing defect, design defect, or failure to warn problem. Anyone involved in the manufacturing, distribution, or sale of a defective product may be found liable for damages caused. 

Many states have strict liability laws for dog bites. A claim over a dog bite injury does not always require showing the owner was negligent. Some states, like Pennsylvania, have a one-bite rule, where the owner is liable for an injury if they knew or should have known the dog was dangerous. If a dog has ever bitten anyone before, then the dog owner is on notice of the dangerous dog in any subsequent bite. 

Medical Malpractice Strict Liability

Some medical malpractice cases may also be based on inferred liability. A serious type of medical malpractice claim involves foreign objects left behind in the body. During surgery, a surgeon, nurse, or other healthcare provider could leave behind a piece of surgical material, like a scalpel, needle, sponge, or gauze. When a patient suffers a left-behind material injury, they may have no idea who left the item behind but they sure know it was caused by someone’s negligence. 

Under a legal rule, negligence can be inferred in some cases where there is no direct evidence. Known as res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself), the injury victim shows evidence from which the jury could conclude that the accident resulted from negligence.  

Differences in Filing a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

Civil lawsuits, including personal injury cases and malpractice lawsuits, generally begin with filing a complaint. This is the legal document that is filed with the court to begin the lawsuit. The complaint is also served on the defendants so they are put on notice of the claims and have a chance to respond. 

The filing requirements for medical malpractice cases require more than most personal injury lawsuits. As a way to discourage frivolous claims, many states require the plaintiff to submit an affidavit of merit or certificate of merit, to show that there is a legal and medical basis for the complaint. This may be required as a statement from a doctor or medical expert that there is a valid basis for the lawsuit. 

For example, in Maryland, a medical malpractice claim can be dismissed if the plaintiff fails to file a certificate of a qualified expert within 90 days from the date of the complaint. The certificate is provided by a doctor to attest that the injury was caused by a deviation from the standard of care, and the deviation was a proximate cause of the injury. 

For a Chicago medical malpractice lawsuit, 735 Illinois Compiled Statutes 5/2-622 requires the plaintiff’s attorney to file an affidavit for any claims involving medical or hospital malpractice. The affidavit generally indicates the plaintiff’s attorney has consulted with a health professional who has determined that there is a reasonable and meritorious cause for filing the lawsuit

Expert Witnesses for Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Medical experts are necessary for medical malpractice lawsuits because jurors do not have the same medical experience, education, and training as doctors or surgeons. To decide whether a doctor breached their duty of care to the patient, an expert witness can help the jury understand what medical standards are for such a situation and whether the doctor involved deviated from those standards. 

In a medical malpractice lawsuit, the expert witness is generally a medical professional in a similar field. To establish someone as a medical expert, each state has different procedures to qualify an expert as a witness. For example, for a medical malpractice lawsuit in Chicago, the plaintiff would have to qualify the expert under Illinois Rules of Evidence 702:

“If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise. Where an expert witness testifies to an opinion based on a new or novel scientific methodology or principle, the proponent of the opinion has the burden of showing the methodology or scientific principle on which the opinion is based is sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance in the particular field in which it belongs.”

Personal injury lawsuits may also use experts, in some situations. Most personal injury lawsuits do not need an expert witness because they don’t involve scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge. For example, in a motorcycle accident lawsuit, a jury would not need an expert to understand why running a red light and hitting a motorcyclist was a breach of the duty of care. 

However, in a product liability case, an expert can help the jury understand why an airbag malfunctioned and caused an accident. An engineer or other scientific expert could explain to the jury what caused the malfunction, and whether the malfunction was a design defect or a manufacturing defect. Manufacturing and product design cases often use medical experts.   

Difference in Damages in Medical Malpractice and Personal Injury Lawsuits

Damages is the term for the losses associated with a personal injury accident. In a personal injury lawsuit or medical malpractice case, the plaintiff is seeking money damages to compensate them for their losses. The damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit may be similar to personal injury damage but in some medical error cases, the damages can be more severe. 

Damages in a personal injury lawsuit generally include economic damages and noneconomic damages. Economic damages are the financial losses associated with the injury, including loss of income if you can’t work, medical bills, property damage, and even future losses. Future economic damages can include the costs of any future medical treatment and loss of earning potential. A personal injury accident, like a car crash, may also include property damage. However, most medical malpractice cases don’t involve property damage.

Noneconomic damages don’t always have an obvious dollar value. How much should you compensate someone who has chronic pain for the rest of their life? Noneconomic damages can include pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of companionship, loss of support, and loss of enjoyment in life. 

Damages in a personal injury case where the victim suffers a permanent injury, loss of limbs, blindness, or loss of sight can have higher damages because their injuries will continue to impact their daily life forever. Some of the most serious medical malpractice cases involve birth injury errors. A child born with brain damage may have physical and mental disabilities for the rest of their lives. These children may require medical care and treatment for 50 years or more.  

Find Personal Injury Lawyers With Experience in Medical Malpractice

Not all lawyers are alike. Most attorneys have experience in limited practice areas. Even though a law school education and state bar license allow lawyers to practice any type of law, the legal practice is generally focused in limited areas. For example, a criminal defense lawyer would generally not be the same person who you would turn to for writing up a real estate transaction. 

A lawyer that handles simple personal injury lawsuits may not be the person you want to use for a medical malpractice lawsuit. Medical malpractice lawsuits are very complex, take a lot of time and investment, and require working with technical medical understanding. If you have a medical malpractice claim, make sure you get legal advice from a lawyer with experience handling cases just like yours. 

Contact experienced trial attorneys who have successfully represented medical error victims and victims of other personal injury accidents. Call a malpractice and personal injury lawyer to find out more about your case and what kind of damages you can recover. For a free consultation, contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162.

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