The Myth of Frivolous Litigation
Cross-posted from NY Personal Injury Law Blog
Some accept as gospel that frivolous lawsuits are a big part of medical malpractice litigation: Baseless claims brought by uninjured people, or whose injuries were not caused by negligence. Not so, according to "Claims, Errors, and Compensation Payments in Medical Malpractice Litigation," a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Risk Management Foundation that was published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The results, in fact, are the opposite of what the tort "deformers" claim, based on results from 1,452 randomly selected, closed medical malpractice files. The reviewers found that 97 percent had indeed suffered harm. In about one-third of these patients, the damage wasn't clearly attributable to negligent medical treatment, a wrong prescription, or a misdiagnosis. Most of those claims were correctly denied compensation, the team reports.
According to the study, 73 percent of plaintiffs whose claims had merit received compensation.
The study also found that just six people had received compensation that were uninjured and 145 had injuries that had not been convincingly linked to medical error. On the other hand, 236 plaintiffs who did suffer an injury from medical error received no compensation. The authors wrote:
One in six claims involved errors and received no payment. The plaintiffs behind such unrequited claims must shoulder the substantial economic and noneconomic burdens that flow from preventable injury. Moreover, failure to pay claims involving error adds to a larger phenomenon of underpayment generated by the vast number of negligent injuries that never surface as claims.
Eighty percent of the claims involved injuries deemed to have caused significant or major disability or death. In only 3% of the claims, no adverse outcomes from medical care were evident.
Since the majority of payments from insurance companies went to people who had been harmed by medical errors and not to people with baseless claims, the authors said that the "moves to combat frivolous litigation will have a limited effect on total costs."
Taking direct aim at politicians and business lobbyists, the authors wrote that:
"The profile of non-error claims we observed does not square with the notion of opportunistic trial lawyers pursuing questionable lawsuits in circumstances in which their chances of winning are reasonable and prospective returns in the event of a win are high. Rather, our findings underscore how difficult it may be for plaintiffs and their attorneys to discern what has happened before the initiation of a claim and the acquisition of knowledge that comes from the investigations, consultation with experts, and sharing of information that litigation triggers. Previous research has described tort litigation as a process in which information is cumulatively acquired."
It is not the first time that a Harvard study has debunked the popular myths spread by insurance companies or politicians with respect to medical malpractice. It had happened back in 1991 by the Harvard Medical Practice Study that found that only eight percent of those injured by medical negligence brought lawsuits. But that is a post for another day.