Can I Lose My House if I Get Sued?

Mark Crane

Disclosures

May 18, 2016

In This Article

What's at Risk if a Lawsuit Is Successful?

On billboards and in television ads, plaintiffs' attorneys vow to fight like pit bulls to force doctors who commit malpractice to pay huge sums. It's no wonder so many physicians fear they could lose their homes or life savings in a lawsuit.

However, the reality is that the fear is overblown.

"It's a myth that lives on, despite the fact that it happens so rarely," said Michael Sacopulos, a defense attorney in Terre Haute, Indiana. "First of all, two thirds of malpractice claims are dropped or dismissed, and physicians win 90% of cases that go to trial. Almost all cases that reach a verdict are settled by the insurer without the doctor spending a penny of his or her own money."

Infrequent, Although Not Nonexistent

Although extremely rare, there have been isolated cases where a physician was required to contribute personal funds, said Nancy D. Miller, an attorney in Lakewood, Colorado, who works with malpractice insurers. "Generally, insurance coverage is adequate to settle the case—but there are exceptions."

Plaintiffs' attorneys have filed liens on doctors' bank accounts and property to force them to take a loan against their homes to pay off the excess judgment. They may force physicians to seek bankruptcy protection, she said.

How often does that happen? Anecdotally, it's extremely unusual, but it's almost impossible to quantify for certain. The legal system has no central repository of data about how those malpractice verdicts are collected.

"I know of one case where a physician blatantly lied on the witness stand," said Miriam Weizenbaum, a plaintiff's attorney in Providence, Rhode Island. "The judge was incensed and sanctioned the physician. That fine wasn't covered by insurance because it wasn't negligence, but an intentional act of wrongdoing. The doctor had to pay it out of his own pocket."

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