50 Shades of Malpractice

Mark Crane


February 27, 2017

In This Article

Malpractice Is a Universal Concern

Most physicians make some medical mistakes in their careers, whether it's an understandable misdiagnosis, an unavoidable error, or perhaps a bad outcome due to carelessness and lack of attention. It's easy to read about some of these cases and mentally chastise the physicians who let these tragedies happen. Others cases make you think, "I had a similar situation but was luckier."

The threat of being sued for medical malpractice is never far from the minds of most physicians. And with good reason: Numerous surveys show that even doctors in "low-risk" specialties stand a good chance of being sued at least once over the course of their careers. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine[1] found that an amazing 99% of physicians in "high-risk" specialties have been sued.

It's of little comfort to doctors that two thirds of claims are dropped or dismissed, and that physicians prevail 90% of the time in cases that go to trial, an American Medical Association study found.[2] Being served with a summons alleging that your care caused an injury to a patient is one of the most traumatic experiences any physician can face. Beyond the financial risk, the threat to your reputation can cause emotional trauma and affect the way you practice and interact with patients for the rest of your career.

We are highlighting noteworthy cases and developments in each of the 50 states—a kind of "50 shades of malpractice." What we found ranges from the tragic to the bizarre but can provide lessons for all physicians on how to avoid lawsuits.

Some highlights:

  • Several cases are among the largest verdicts or settlements in a state's history.

  • In a few cases, doctors have been sued dozens of times and faced state disciplinary actions as well.

  • Multimillion-dollar verdicts are often substantially reduced after trial because of caps on pain and suffering or a judge's ruling that the verdict was excessive. For example, a $130 million verdict against doctors and a hospital in a case involving a neurologically impaired infant received big headlines in New York newspapers. When a judge reduced the award to $11 million, the newspapers did not carry follow-up articles.

  • In every state, most malpractice cases took at least 4 years from the date of the alleged negligence to a conclusion in court. Some cases took more than 10 years to resolve.

  • Lawsuits are often filed because of basic risk-management failures. Miscommunication among physicians and nurses, lack of adequate documentation, delays in referring patients to specialists, and failure to follow up are the most common reasons patients sue.

  • Some cases we found were just downright strange.

  • Although the malpractice climate has improved for physicians in recent years, the fear of being sued persists. We hope there are plenty of good lessons for physicians in the cases below about how to avoid getting sued.


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