Medical Malpractice Claims Studied for Litigation Rate

A new study of medical malpractice claims in the United States published online May 14 in the Archives of Internal Medicine reveals similarities with the Canadian experience.

According to the results of the claims that go to court most are ultimately decided in the physician’s favour. Another finding was that litigated medical malpractice claims often take months or years to be resolved. These are both fundamental truths of medical malpractice litigation in Canada

The researchers sorted through data from all 50 US states for the years 2002 through 2005 and analysed 10,056 malpractice claims that resulted in defense costs. They calculated the number of medical malpractice claims resulting in litigation and determined how those claims were resolved by specialty. They also analysed how long it took to resolve various types of claims.

The Rate and Success of Litigated Medical Malpractice Claims

They found that 55.2% of medical malpractice claims that required some defense cost led to litigation.

The rate of litigation ranged from 46.7% for anesthesiologists to 62.6% for obstetricians and gynecologists. Approximately 53% of claims against internists and medicine-based sub-specialists resulted in litigation.

Plaintiffs were more likely to be unsuccessful in litigation, as 54.1% of all cases were dismissed. The rate of dismissal showed a wide variance. It was highest for cases brought against internists and medicine-based sub-specialists (61.5%) and lowest for cases against pathologists (36.5%).

In cases involving internists and pathologists, just more than a third of litigated claims ended up being resolved before a verdict was reached by the court. In contrast, the proportion of claims settled before a verdict was 49.6% for pathologists.

Only 4.5% of the litigated medical malpractice claims were ultimately decided by a trial verdict. Pathologists were involved the most frequently in a trial as 7.4% of those cases went to a verdict. This is contrasted to a low of 2.0% for anaesthesiologists and 2.7% for internists and medicine-based sub-specialists.

The clear majority of cases (79.6 %) that did progress to a final verdict were decided in favor of the defendant. This a statistic that is slightly better for plaintiffs in the United States than in Canada were generally speaking 90% of the cases decided at trial result in a verdict for the defendant. Practically speaking there may be little difference as the sample size of cases proceeding to trial in Canada is much smaller than that reviewed in the study.

Medical Malpractice Claims Take a Long Time to be Resolved

Whether litigated or not medical malpractice claims take a long time to be resolved. The mean time required to resolve claims was 19.0 months, which included 11.6 months for nonlitigated claims and 25.1 months for litigated claims.

Naturally claims that proceeded to trial took even longer. For cases decided at trial the mean duration was 39.0 months for cases decided in favor of the defendants and 43.5 months for cases decided in favor of the plaintiffs. This is an interesting variance that is most likely attributable to defence tactics in searching out witnesses and theories in claims that are indefensible.

The authors from the Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Harvard Medical School, Boston concluded that “The substantial portion of litigated claims that are not dismissed in court and the length of time required to resolve litigated claims more generally may help explain why malpractice claims undergoing litigation are an important source of concern to physicians.”

Arch Intern Med. Published online May 14, 2012.

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