Are Courts Full of Frivolous Medical Malpractice Lawsuits? Numbers Say "No"


Tort reform might make for a hotly disputed politics and policy issue because of the clear distinction in perspectives along political party lines - and no doubt because of the deeply emotional component of personal medical issues - but in terms of statistical evidence, it's hard to see what there is to dispute.

Though many might have you believe that frivolous lawsuits for medical malpractice are clogging up the justice system in America, the fact of the matter is a stark contrast to this misconception: in reality, a few high-profile cases have given malpractice lawsuits a bad name, and this has seemed to actually deter many individuals from filing lawsuits at all.

A landmark study published by the Harvard School of Public Health explains why this seems to be the case. The study consisted of close examination of the litigation results of 1452 medical malpractice lawsuits from five liability insurers. According to the study's abstract, the aspects of the cases considered were "prevalence, characteristics, litigation outcomes, and costs of claims that lacked evidence of error."

One of the study's first findings seems in fact to debunk the notion that the tort system does not effectively discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate claims because of the demands placed on the system by the alleged huge numbers of personal injury lawsuits. In the overwhelming majority of cases, malpractice claims in which no error was found did not result in compensation being paid (370 of 515, or 72%); likewise, a similar majority of instances in which error was verified did result in compensation (653 of 889, or 73%).

Of course, objections still might arise from the idea that over one-third of claims that did not involve error might still be responsible for unnecessary tie-ups in court and unnecessary money thrown at litigation. Again, the study indicates that this notion is overblown.

As the conclusion succinctly states, "claims not involving errors accounted for 13 to 16 percent of the system's total monetary costs." On the contrary, researchers found that when an error occurred, it most often did not favor plaintiffs. Nonpayment of claims involving verified errors in medical treatment were far more likely than payment of claims that did not have errors, contrary to what those who rail against the epidemic of "frivolous lawsuits" would have you believe.

But what about the types and numbers of injuries treated? Surely, if, as tort reform advocates like to preach, because of the ease of getting money because of the fuzziness of "medical malpractice" decisions (who can really know if something was or was not a doctor's fault?), wouldn't everyone who had a headache after going to the doctor try to pin the blame on the doctor for a fast buck?

Well, no, according to the study. Eighty percent of the claimants examined suffered devastating consequences: many suffered a significant or major injury (39% and 15%, respectively), while 26% had died, with claims made by relatives.

The study's final conclusion is most telling: most individuals who have grounds to file a malpractice claim for medical negligence simply do not. As healthcare blog "Health Beat" reminds us, a New York Times article put the number of patients who might legitimately file malpractice claims at 1 in 100 patients, whereas perhaps around 2% of these patients even make claims.

From this perspective, in terms of costs alone, we might be lucky that more people don't hire an injury lawyer and file malpractice claims and injury lawsuits. This may be the greatest victory of tort reform supporters: making sure that the American public feels guilty enough not to seek compensation in the first place.

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