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Only One in Five Medical Malpractice Cases Pay Out, According to Comprehensive Study

August 12, 2015

Supporters of so-called tort reform measures would have the American public believe that medical malpractice cases are not only running rampant in the country’s civil justice system, but that they consistently lead to astronomical verdicts (which, in turn, are driving doctors out of business). Not only this – they’ve argued that such cases are straining the financial limitations of our national healthcare system. Now there’s even more data – taken from the “most comprehensive study” of its kind in history that suggests such cases are not only on the decline, but that they often do not pay out at all. According to the Associated Press,“[o]nly 1 in 5 malpractice claims against doctors leads to a settlement or other payout.”

This blog written in May 2014 regarding medical malpractice cases represent “well under 2 percent” of all civil cases, and that such lawsuits represent “one-half of one percent of all healthcare costs,” but this is even more evidence that tort reformers are grasping at straws and fighting an enemy that they themselves have fabricated. Evidence even suggests that this is part of a larger trend (in the state of Pennsylvania, at least) – one that saw the number of medical malpractice case filings drop nearly 45 percent between 2000 and 2012.

The news story mentions that attorneys face high costs when bringing a claim to trial, especially given that “[d]octors, hospitals, and their insurers often have significant money and legal firepower.” Citing one tort reform measure that has gone into effect in a few jurisdictions, “some states also have caps on malpractice awards.” This is a limit on the amount of money victims can collect when they are harmed through no fault of their own. The article’s author goes on to explain, “[U]sually, only very strong cases” are pursued – “it’s doubtful that most claims are filed on a greedy whim.” In fact, one co-author says bluntly, “A lawyer would have to be an idiot to take a frivolous case to court.”

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While this helps to debunk the narrative present in much of the media – that medical malpractice cases are on the rise, that claims are often baseless, that they harm doctors, and that they force citizens to pay more for heath care services – it may also mean that the very opposite is true. Perhaps, due to the high cost of bringing a case, many people who are entitled to compensation for their injuries or the deaths of loved ones do not feel they can risk hiring an attorney and bring a case to court. Ideally, legislation would strike a balance between keeping the courthouse doors open to individuals while also preventing non-meritorious claims from being filed (many of which, as it happens, are brought by large corporations and insurers).

When we take a step back from the political clash between tort reformers and civil justice advocates, or between huge insurance companies and individuals, however, we must recognize that this study’s statistics represent real people – many of whom were harmed while under the care of their health care providers. As a representative for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, puts it, “The thing that’s disappointing about their study is they don’t focus on what can be done to prevent people from being injured.”

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