Patients Who Won't Sue Their Doctors -- Even When They Could

Mark Crane

Disclosures

November 25, 2013

In This Article

Good Rapport Can Discourage Lawsuits

"Most patients understand that anyone can make an honest mistake," said Michael J. Sacopulos, an attorney in Terre Haute, Indiana. "Everyone in medicine knows of a doctor who is a total hack and makes life-threatening mistakes all the time. But his patients love him, and no one ever sues. Personality may be more important than clinical ability when it comes to lawsuits."

Armand Leone, MD, JD, a radiologist-plaintiff's attorney in Glen Rock, New Jersey, often deals with patients and families who want to sue specialists but not their family physician (FP). That's understandable, because the specialist often provides only episodic care. "In one case, the FP was treating a 30-year-old male nonsmoker for bronchitis. It turned out to be congestive heart failure," said Leone. "The FP referred the patient to a cardiologist who never ordered a stress test. Four weeks later, the patient had a myocardial infarction. A review of the medical records showed that both doctors bore some liability."

"The patient said he couldn't possibly sue his FP, who had treated his family for many years," said Leone. "We tell patients that we can't do our job as attorneys properly if one doctor is off limits. We have to examine the whole spectrum of care. Having a good bedside manner and long-standing relationship with patients will often protect doctors from lawsuits, regardless of their level of competence."

It's Just an Old Wives' Tale

Other attorneys disagree that patients don't sue doctors they like. "I've been doing malpractice litigation for 25 years, and this is an old wives' tale -- a total fiction," said John M. Fitzpatrick, a defense attorney in Denver. "If the case is meritorious and substantial money is a possibility, they will sue. If the case is meritorious but the recovery is likely to be small, they don't sue because they can't find a lawyer willing to take the case."

The size of any potential recovery is crucial even when the patient is reluctant to sue. "If there's a severe injury and financial hardship, then people are less inclined to provide a safe harbor for a specific doctor," said Dr. Leone. "The patient and family may need to sue in order to avoid financial catastrophe, regardless of how they feel about the doctor."

"The biggest reason injured patients don't sue is that they can't find a lawyer willing to take the case," said James Lewis Griffith Sr., a veteran malpractice attorney in Philadelphia. "The average case costs at least $50,000, and often more, for the plaintiff's attorney to put together. If the recovery isn't at least 6 figures, the lawyer can't afford to take the case. That's why out of every 20 patients injured by a doctor, the odds are that only 1 or 2 will be accepted by a lawyer."

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