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Frivolous lawsuit do not justify medical malpractice litigation reform, study in New England Journal of Medicine shows

Proponents of reforming the medical malpractice litigation system often claim that reform is needed to curb frivolous lawsuits. The proponents of reform argue that frivolous lawsuits are the primary reason for high malpractice insurance rates, which are causing physicians to leave Pennsylvania. However, a study conducted by a number of health professionals and recently published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine suggests that such claims are greatly exaggerated.

After carefully reviewing and analyzing 1452 closed medical malpractice files submitted by insurers to determine if a medical injury occurred, and if so, whether it was caused by medical error, this study reached two general conclusions. First, the authors clearly stated that the claims of reformers were “overblown.” Second, they determined that the medical malpractice system was able to differentiate between non-meritorious and meritorious claims.

These conclusions were supported by a number of different study findings. Although it was determined that non-meritorious claims were filed, a vast majority of those claims received no compensation. Conversely, most of the compensation was actually paid to those individuals who were injured as the result of medical errors. (Interestingly, when non-meritorious claims were presented to a jury, compensation was almost never awarded, thus debunking the myth that juries were unable to effectively analyze medical issues.) The results were the same when considering the costs of litigation other than actual compensation paid to plaintiffs; a vast majority of costs were attributable to meritorious claims. Thus, these findings support the study’s conclusion that reforms being proposed would have a little effect on reducing total litigation costs. Further, if litigation costs were not reduced, it is safe to assume that such reforms would also have little effect on reducing malpractice insurance premiums.

In a similar vein, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently released statistics concerning medical malpractice cases in Pennsylvania. In early 2003, the supreme court reformed its civil procedural rules and required plaintiffs, before proceeding with malpractice litigation, to obtain an opinion from a health-care provider that the plaintiff’s claim was meritorious. After this change became effective, statewide medical malpractice filings dropped by almost 40%. Those same statistics revealed that the number of large jury verdicts had not increased over prior years.

Despite the supreme court’s reforms, which undoubtedly reduced the number of frivolous lawsuits, malpractice insurance rates for physicians continued to rise. As Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy noted in an interview concerning the release of the statistics, “There still is a problem with the malpractice insurance rates, and we can’t ignore that. But I’m virtually certain that those rates aren’t being affected by [actions of our] judiciary or an out-of-control legal profession.”

Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, Pennsylvania Law Weekly