The Reasonable Doctor

- Posted in Medical Malpractice by

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If a doctor's conduct is found to have fallen short of the standard that the law expects from a reasonable doctor in a particular field of medicine or expertise, considering the specific circumstances, that doctor will be deemed negligent. Put differently, professional negligence by doctors occurs when a patient is harmed because a doctor has not exercised the level of skill and care expected of a reasonably competent doctor in their respective field.


In most cases, a doctor may face a lawsuit under delictual liability, requiring the presence of elements of such liability. If these elements are indeed present, the doctor will be held responsible for the damages resulting from the negligence.


A doctor's conduct will be evaluated against a standard of reasonableness. When applying this standard to the medical profession, it entails the conduct expected of a reasonable medical practitioner given the specific circumstances of the case.

In the case of Van Wyk v Lewis 1924 AD 438, Wessels AJ remarked we should attempt to place ourselves in the exact position the surgeon was in during the specific operation and then ascertain if their actions were characterized by sensible caution or negligence. Moreover, in Michell v Dixon 1924 AD 519, the court determined that a medical practitioner is not obligated to exhibit the utmost level of professional expertise in their cases, but they are required to employ practical skill and care; negligence results in liability for ensuing consequences.

In R v Van der Merwe 1953 2 PH H 124 (W), Roper J noted that negligence, especially regarding a skilled profession like medicine, carries a distinct implication. A professional who practices a skill-based occupation holds themselves as possessing the essential expertise and commits to delivering services with reasonable skill and capability. This is the expected and undertaken obligation, entailing a skill level corresponding to the ordinary proficiency within their profession.

Ultimately, in Goliath v MEC for Health, Eastern Cape 2015 (2) SA 97 (SCA), Ponnan JA explained that deviation from the general skill and diligence exercised by peers in the same professional category would typically amount to negligence. A surgeon is held to the same standards as other professionals.

As pointed out, a medical practitioner is not expected to bring to bear upon the case entrusted to him the highest possible degree of professional skill, but he is bound to employ reasonable skill and care. The central criterion remains whether the practitioner utilized rational skill and care or if their conduct fell below the benchmark of a reasonably competent practitioner in their field.


In conclusion, the concept of professional negligence within the medical field revolves around the pivotal idea that doctors are held to a standard of reasonableness in their conduct. This standard is a yardstick that measures a doctor's actions against the expectations of what a reasonable medical practitioner would do in a similar situation. When a doctor's conduct falls short of this standard and results in harm to a patient, it constitutes professional negligence.

This understanding emphasizes that a doctor's obligation isn't to achieve the pinnacle of professional excellence in every case, but rather to exercise a practical and reasonable level of skill and care in their practice. The legal framework surrounding delictual liability underscores the accountability that doctors face when the essential elements of negligence are present in their actions.

Key legal precedents such as the Van Wyk v Lewis case highlight the importance of placing oneself in the shoes of the medical practitioner, considering the circumstances they faced during a specific medical procedure. The Michell v Dixon case reinforces the notion that practical skill and reasonable care are the cornerstones of a doctor's responsibilities, underscoring the repercussions of negligence.

Moreover, the R v Van der Merwe case introduces the idea that practicing a skilled profession inherently implies a commitment to possessing and applying reasonable expertise. This parallels the insight from Goliath v MEC for Health, Eastern Cape, affirming that a surgeon, like any other professional, is subject to the standards of their peer group and is responsible for employing reasonable skill and care.

Ultimately, the prevailing theme is clear: the medical profession is held to a standard that demands competence and practical care, with deviations from this standard constituting negligence. As medicine advances and patient care remains paramount, the principles established by these legal cases serve as a critical guidepost for maintaining the integrity and accountability of medical practitioners.


Suspect that you or a loved one may have been a victim of medical negligence? Get in touch with Adendorff Theron Inc. We can help investigate your situation. If the medical practitioner(s) failed to meet the standard of care, Adendorff Theron Inc can support you in pursuing justice and the compensation you're entitled to.

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