Death by being declared dead seems like an oxymoronic statement. Unfortunately, there have been cases over the years of people being mistakenly declared dead by medical staff when they were still actually alive and later dying due to inadequate medical care or other reasons. While it's possible to sue for damages related to such an event, doing so can be challenging. Here are a couple of things you need to consider before litigating this type of case in court.
Death by Definition
One of the criteria for prevailing in this type of personal injury case is you must prove the injury was caused by the defendant's negligence. In a medical malpractice lawsuit, this typically means showing the level of care provided by the medical staff did not meet the standard required in his or her field.
For instance, if the doctor declared someone deceased without examining the individual when the industry standard requires medical staff to perform certain actions to confirm death has occurred, a case could be made that the healthcare provider deviated from the medical standard of care and is liable for any damages that result.
One challenge you'll face is determining whether the healthcare provider's declaration of death meets the standard of care. This can be a little difficult, though, because the definition of death isn't as concrete in the medical world as one would think.
Technically, death is defined as the cessation of all vital bodily functions. However, a person who sustains severe and irreversible brain damage may be declared deceased even though the individual is still breathing and has a heartbeat. This is called brain death because, unlike the heart, the brain cannot be resuscitated once it has sustained extensive and irreparable damage.
A person may also be declared dead if he or she ceases to respond to lifesaving measures after a period of time. For example, emergency responders may declare a heart attack patient has died if the heart fails to restart after performing CPR for a period of time. This is because the heart is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood to brain, and the brain begins to die after six minutes when it's deprived of this vital substance.
So while you may think death means the complete absence of life, the medical professional may be working under a different definition that is considered valid in the healthcare industry and court system. You would need to show that the medical professional based the diagnosis on an erroneous definition of death or the healthcare provider misread the patient's vital signs (e.g. declared the patient brain dead when there was neurological activity).
Another issue that may come up is there are some conditions that emulate death; that is, they only make the person appear to be medically dead. For instance, severe hypothermia can cause a person's vital signs to drop so low as to make them appear to be non-existent to the naked eye. A similar condition called mammalian dive reflex occurs when people go into a catatonic state after being in cold water for a long period of time, which can also make the individual appear deceased.
People who suffer from narcolepsy cataplexy can also be mistakenly declared dead. Narcolepsy is a condition where a person experiences extreme drowsiness and sometimes spontaneously falls asleep, while cataplexy causes the person's muscles to become paralyzed and unresponsive. The combination of the two could lead someone to fail tests determining his or her state of life and possibly diagnosed dead as a result.
In these cases, you'll need to show that the medical professional didn't take proper measures to confirm the person was deceased and not just suffering from a reversible condition. This can be challenging if the incident occurs in places where advanced medical tools are not readily available (e.g. very rural areas).
Although having a loved one actually die as a result of being misdiagnosed as dead can be distressing, it's important to consider all the facts of the situation before launching a lawsuit to ensure you have a viable case against the healthcare practitioner. For more information about filing a medical malpractice case, contact an attorney like Robert Reardon.
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