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The Top Myths about Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Marshall M. Raucci

Myth #1: Medical mistakes don’t kill or hurt that many people.

FACT: According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), medical negligence is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.—right behind heart disease and cancer. The JAMA article estimates that medical errors kill roughly 200,000 patients in the U.S. each year. (See article by Forbes) Elsewhere, it is estimated that preventable medical mistakes kill 98,000 people per year, at a cost of $29 billion annually. This makes preventable medical errors one of the biggest annual killers, ahead of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and others. Regardless of the source, it is clear that medical mistakes needlessly kill tens of thousands of people every year.

Myth #2: Medical malpractice claims are on the rise.

FACT: For every 100 people hospitalized, less than one of those patients suffers a serious, preventable medical injury. Yet only 1.5% of those injured patients ultimately file a malpractice lawsuit. Further, the actual number of malpractice claims that get paid has remained fairly steady between 1991 and 2003, according an analysis by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation: 13,687 in 1991 to 15,287 in 2003. By 2011, the number of paid claims nationwide went down to 9,497. And, while the number of medical malpractice claims rose slightly in 2013, the total amount of claims filed remains at the lowest level in a decade. For perspective, the total number of claims paid is just one-tenth of the number of hospital deaths that can be attributed to mistakes, so it’s hard to claim that patients are filing frivolous claims. (See article by Huffington Post and report by The Civil Justice Resource Group)

Myth #3: Medical Malpractice payouts are increasing in size and number of payouts.

FACT: Malpractice payouts are costing less than they did 10 years ago. In 2003, the total amount of malpractice payouts reached a peak of nearly $5 billion. In 2012, a total of 12,142 malpractice payouts were made at total amount of $3.6 billion, which is significantly less and is also 3.4% lower than in 2011, according to a report from Diederich Healthcare. In fact, the total amount of medical malpractice payouts has steadily dropped each year since 2003. In 2013, 96% of all medical malpractice claim payouts were due to a settlement and not after a trial. Just 3% of all claims were resolved by a trial.

Myth #4: Malpractice claims drive up the cost of health care.

FACT: Proponents of tort reform would try to convince you that medical malpractice lawsuits increase the cost of health care and increase the cost of doctors’ malpractice insurance coverage. According to tort reformers, states should enact laws to limit the damages and awards in malpractice cases in order to reduce health care costs and spending. However, state-by-state statistics show this to be a false assertion. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) attempted to find a statistical link between health care spending and state medical liability laws, but was unable to find a connection. The CBO stated it, “found no evidence that restrictions on tort liability reduce medical spending. Moreover, using a different set of data, CBO found no statistically significant difference in per capita health care spending between states with and without limits on malpractice torts.” (See report from American Association for Justice)