May 10, 2006

Frivolous Malpractice Lawsuits Uncommon: Study

By Gene Emery

BOSTON (Reuters) - People who file lawsuits against doctors accusing them of medical mistakes rarely do so frivolously, and those who file trivial claims generally receive no payout, researchers at Harvard University found.

"Portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown," said David Studdert who led a team of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in examining 1,452 randomly selected U.S. lawsuits.

The study, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, also found that very few patients who do make inappropriate claims receive payouts from insurance companies.

"Although one third of the claims we examined did not involve errors, most of these went unpaid," the authors wrote.

The researchers also reported that one in six of those who are injured by medical errors receive no compensation at all.

Studdert's study supports other studies which have shown that the great majority of people injured by medical negligence never sue, and seems to disagree with assertions that the court system is rife with frivolous lawsuits.

"Although the system seems to do very well separating the wheat from the chaff, it's an expensive and very time-consuming process," Studdert told Reuters. "We need to do more than put caps on damages, which may or may not be a good idea."

The researchers found that harmed patients usually have to wait five years for a payout with 54 cents of every dollar in their award going to lawyers, experts and courts.

The study found that four out of five plaintiffs lose the case if it goes to trial while three out of five patients receive money if they settle out of court.

Patients who do win their trials usually received $799,365 in damages, nearly twice as much as the $462,099 average out-of-court settlement, the study found.

The team studied claims covering birth, surgery, medication problems and a missed or delayed diagnosis in areas of the U.S. covering 33,000 doctors, 61 hospitals and 428 outpatient facilities.

In a commentary, George Annas a professor of health law at Boston University School of Public Health said few hospitals have chosen to take a patient's right to safety seriously.

Until they do, the threat of lawsuits will remain the only motivation for institutions to follow safer practices.