Frivolous Malpractice Lawsuits Uncommon: Harvard Study

By: Jack Cannon

There has been a great deal of publicity recently about doctors leaving the state as a result of frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits. In fact the publicity has reached such a crescendo that the Illinois Legislature recently passed a bill placing caps, or limits, on medical malpractice verdicts. The underlying basis for the bill was that insurance companies were forced into doubling and tripling doctor's malpractice insurance premiums due to an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits being filed. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that this is not the case.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that most malpractice claims are meritorious, with 97% of claims involving medical injury. The press release from Harvard headlined: "Study casts doubt on claims that the medical malpractice system is plagued by frivolous lawsuits." In addition, the study found that very few claims are paid where there is no error made on the part of doctors. The study also found that the incidents where patients are seriously injured by medical negligence without receiving any compensation are a far bigger problem than that of cases without merit receiving compensation.

"Some critics have suggested that the malpractice system is inundated with groundless lawsuits, and that whether a plaintiff recovers money is like a random lottery, virtually unrelated to whether the claim has merit," said lead author David Studdert, Associate Professor of Law and Public Health at The Harvard School of Public Health. "These findings cast doubt on that view by showing that most malpractice claims involve medical error and serious injury and claims with merit are far more likely to be paid than claims without merit."

Dr. William Sage, a Professor of Law at Columbia University in New York City, added: "these findings are absolutely no surprise to any of us in the policy community. They are consistent with everything we suspect and learned from research over the last twenty years which is that the major problem out there is that there are medical errors that are not compensated rather than frivolous claims that are compensated."

In addition to the main talking points, the study found that 80% of claims involved major disability or death. However, only 56% of all claimants receive compensation. Of all injury claims, 63% were found to be the result of medical error. The researchers found that one in six claimants whose injuries were caused by medical error did not receive any compensation. Nonpayment of claims where error was involved occurred more often than payments for injuries where error was not apparent.

The insurance industry has used scare tactics to force the legislature into enacting law which now limits an injured patient's right to recover. For example, claims that doctors are leaving the state in droves due to the high cost of malpractice insurance in Illinois are unfounded. According to the American Medical Association, there are more doctors in Illinois today than there were ten years ago. The same is true for emergency room physicians, whose numbers have doubled in Illinois in the last thirteen years.

In the mid-90's, pro-insurance lobbyists were successful in pushing through legislation in Illinois that significantly impaired an injured persons right to recover. After two years of litigation, that law was held unconstitutional. Eventually the current law will be tested in the courts and a determination will be made whether this limitation on a injured patient's right to recover will pass constitutional muster.