The untimely and tragic death of Michael Jackson in 2009 pushed what appears to be an ever-growing problem into the national spotlight: the tendency of doctors to over-prescribe medicines for their patients' use. Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, is currently being prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, Murray faces the very real prospect of actually spending some time in prison.
According to an article from Reuters, this is a relatively new, but increasingly popular, way in which to deal with problems of Florida medical malpractice. Until recently, criminal prosecution of negligent doctors was virtually nonexistent. If a doctor made a mistake, he or she could expect to be called upon to answer for that mistake in a civil court and possibly to pay out money damages, but the idea of going to jail for a medical mistake was typically not a concern.
Now, however, state prosecutors across the nation are beginning to show an interest in bringing charges against doctors for the more extreme cases of Florida medical malpractice, especially in cases involving excessive dispensing of prescription drugs. Florida prosecutors are leading the charge by aggressively following up on any indications that doctors are abusing the privilege of writing prescriptions. A new law has limited doctors' abilities to dispense drugs at medical clinics, and the Reuters article quotes one state attorney as saying, "Our marching orders are that we will not turn down a pill case coming into this office." This new tone is likely to make doctors pay a little more attention to the pills they are prescribing and any potential side effects or negative interactions that those medications might have.
Although the Florida medical malpractice cases that warrants criminal prosecution are still very much in the minority, this trend is important to note because criminally prosecuted cases can have an effect on the way in which civil cases on the same subjects are resolved. For example, if a doctor is prosecuted and found guilty of criminal negligence, then he or she is much more likely to also be found liable in a medical malpractice suit that involves the same matter. This is true because the legal standard that the evidence is required to meet in a criminal case is higher than that required in a civil case. Therefore, if the evidence is enough to meet the standard in a criminal case, it is likely enough to meet the standard in a civil case, as long as the facts and circumstances involved are substantially the same. Additionally, even if the civil and criminal case diverge in some ways, a conviction in a criminal case will likely make a negligent doctor quite aware of the weaknesses in his or her defense and, as a result, more willing to negotiate and come to a fair and reasonable settlement.